Kansas Action for Children staff members Jessica Herrera Russell, left, and Adrienne Olejnik welcomed several policy changes by the 2022 Legislature, but urged lawmakers to look closer at the need for childcare, health and food assistance helpful to kids. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas Action for Children’s Adrienne Olejnik knows the look of kids enduring without a sustainable food source, quality early childhood education and benefit of routine medical care.
Her job required she look squarely in the eye politicians of the 2022 Kansas Legislature making decisions that didn’t always place those needy children high on the agenda despite the state’s extraordinary financial surplus.
“I would like them to have the conversations that they have ignored for the last several years,” Olejnik said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “We have too many uninsured kids. Too many kids are going hungry.”
Here’s a peek at three statistics motivating Olejnik: 86,000 under age six are without licensed childcare, 43,000 went without health insurance in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one in six face food insecurity.
“We’re sitting on that budget surplus, and I know they want to be cautious and somewhat frugal, but they rush to make tax cuts all the time, and yet they don’t rush to invest in kids. So, if I had a magic wand, I would really have them consider what their role is to our next generation,” said Olejnik, vice president at Kansas Action for Children.
KAC, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization based in Topeka, works with local organizations, state policymakers and other advocates to make a difference in lives of children across Kansas. Their quest is to build a state where every child secures the care, education and resources to thrive.
The Legislature annually produces bills aimed at the welfare of children, but KAC believes lawmakers frequently settled for status quo. The 2022 Legislature voted to hold hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve funds, which would be available for future investments rather than have immediate impact.
“You know, right now, families are surviving — not necessarily thriving,” said Jessica Herrera Russell, also of Kansas Action for Children.
The House and Senate did agree to lower the state’s food sales tax from 6.5% to 4% on Jan. 1, 2023. The legislation signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, who preferred the state’s regressive sales tax on groceries be eliminated July 1, would result in zeroing out the state’s portion of food sales tax Jan. 1, 2025.
“When the initial cut does start, it will help … with these rising costs due to inflation on groceries,” Russell said. “Hopefully, that money can go back into families’ pockets.”
The Legislature passed an economic development bill that featured expansion of the employer childcare tax credit. Since 2012, it’s been limited to certain types of businesses. Going forward, all sorts of companies will be able to deploy the credit to improve affordability and availability of childcare for their workers.
Olejnik said a wave of organizations and individuals pleaded with the Legislature to amend state law to widen access to a program designed to support workers struggling to secure childcare.
“That’s one of the successes for us this session,” Olejnik said. “A business can support their employees by either providing onsite childcare, and some businesses here in Kansas do that. It could also subsidize the cost of child care for their employees. So, they can make some level of contribution to make it more affordable.”
The Legislature declined to expand eligibility for Medicaid to more than 100,000 Kansans under the Affordable Care Act. The governor recommended expansion. Polling has indicated most Kansans support extension of KanCare to lower-income families, but resistance among some Republican lawmakers remained. They argued the program could be too costly or creation of a bigger entitlement program wasn’t good for Kansas.
Olejnik said the state ought to enlarge the category of people covered by Medicaid and invest more in delivery of Medicaid services to people with disabilities on waiting lists.
The Legislature approved, despite a veto from Kelly, a bill forbidding the Democratic governor from proceeding with rewriting the $4 billion annual contract with three for-profit insurance companies that provide KanCare services statewide. That legislation was controversial because no individual, group, company or lobbyist stepped forward to claim ownership of the bill.
Olejnik said the current state contract with KanCare providers fell short because it didn’t require disclosure of important information about availability and quality of services to children.
The Legislature did, however, adopt a bill adding Kansas to a new federal program boosting postpartum depression coverage through Medicaid from the current two months after birth to 12 months after birth. It was recommended in January by Kelly, and the House and Senate included the necessary language in the state’s new budget.
“We know that when mothers are healthy, their babies are healthy,” Russell said. “They’re on that right path to getting their health care needs bet. So, this was really important.”
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