by Tim Carpenter
TOPEKA – Kansas Action for Children Adrienne Olejnik knows the look of children without a sustainable food source, quality early childhood education, and the benefit of routine medical care.
Her job required looking frankly in the eyes of politicians in the 2022 Kansas legislature who are making decisions that haven’t always put these needy kids high on the agenda despite the state’s massive financial surplus.
“I would like them to have the conversations they’ve been neglecting for the past several years,” Olejnik said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “We have a lot of uninsured children. A lot of children are going hungry.”
Here’s a peek at three statistics that motivate Olejnik: 86,000 under six without licensed child care, 43,000 without health insurance in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic, and one in six facing food insecurity.
“We’re sitting on this budget surplus, and I know they want to be a bit cautious and frugal, but they’re quick to take tax cuts all the time, yet they’re in no rush to invest in kids. So, if I had a magic wand, I’d make them really think about Their role is in our next generation,” said Olignik, vice president of the Kansas Action Foundation for Children.
KAC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Topeka, works with local organizations, state policy makers, and other advocates to make a difference in the lives of children throughout Kansas. Their quest is to build a nation where every child secures the care, education and resources needed to thrive.
The legislature annually passes bills aimed at childcare, but the KAC believes lawmakers have often settled on the 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 having an immediate effect.
“You know, right now, families live — not necessarily thrive,” said Jessica Herrera Russell, of Kansas Action for Children.
The House and Senate approved a reduction in the state’s food sales tax from 6.5% to 4% on January 1, 2023. Legislation signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, who favored the repeal of the state’s regressive sales tax on groceries on July 1, eliminates the state’s portion of the tax Food sales January 1, 2025.
“When the initial cut starts, it will help … with these increased costs due to inflation in groceries,” Russell said. “I hope this money will go back into the families’ pockets.”
The legislature passed an economic development bill that included expanding the employer tax credit for childcare. Since 2012, it has been limited to certain types of businesses. Going forward, all types of businesses will be able to spread credit to improve the affordability and availability of childcare for their workers.
Olejnik said a wave of organizations and individuals has appealed to the legislature to amend state law to expand access to a program designed to support workers struggling to secure child care.
“This is one of the successes that this session has brought us,” Olejnik said. “Any company can support their employees either by providing on-site childcare, and some companies here in Kansas do that. They can also subsidize the cost of childcare for their employees. So, they can make a certain level of contribution to make it affordable.”
The legislature refused to extend Medicaid eligibility to more than 100,000 people under the Affordable Care Act. The governor recommended expansion. Polls indicated that most Kansans support the extension of KanCare to lower-income families, but resistance among some Republican lawmakers remained. They argued that the program might be too expensive or that creating a larger entitlement program was not good for Kansas.
Olejnik said the state should expand the category of Medicaid covered people and invest more in providing Medicaid services to people with disabilities on waiting lists.
The legislature, despite Kelly’s veto, approved a bill preventing the Democratic governor from moving forward with rewriting the $4 billion annual contract with three for-profit insurers that provide KanCare services statewide. This legislation was controversial because no individual, group, company, or lobbyist had come forward to claim ownership of the bill.
Olejnik said the state’s current contract with KanCare providers was not limited because it did not require disclosure of important information about the availability and quality of services for children.
However, the legislature has passed a bill adding Kansas to a new federal program that would boost coverage of postpartum depression through Medicaid from the current two months after childbirth to 12 months after childbirth. It was recommended by Kelly in January, and the House and Senate included the necessary language in the state’s new budget.
“We know that when mothers are healthy, their children are healthy,” Russell said. “They are on track to get their healthcare needs met. So, this was really important.”