Sunday Reader: Easing food aid limits; Remap fundraising

A rolling field of sunflowers at dusk in Kansas

Good morning:

Well, that was quite a week. Lots of late nights and early mornings.

We got home in time Friday to celebrate an early Valentine’s Day dinner with Mrs. SSJ at Carmen’s Cafe in Kansas City.

It’s a significant landmark because that’s where she agreed to marry me on May 4, 2013.  Besides that, it really is the best Italian food in town.

As a Valentine’s gift, Mrs. SSJ purchased tickets to The Elders’ concert at Knuckleheads on April 29.

So, if you’re a newsmaker and are reading this, please scratch that day off your calendar for making news….

Now on to the significant stories that we published last week (you will notice a theme) and other news you may have missed but need to know…

  • A bill eliminating the state sales tax on food got out of a Senate committee last week but only after more tax exemptions were added to the legislation.
  • A bill opening the door for autonomous delivery vehicles is running into trouble as opposition to the legislation mounts.
  • Senate President Ty Masterson removed three lawmakers from committees who opposed the new congressional districts, including two who flip-flopped on the maps.
  • Sen. Mark Steffen’s bill making it easier to get an exemption for any kind of vaccine mandated for schools and day care centers got sent back to a committee, although it’s believed to only be temporary.
  • And in more Steffen-related news, a House panel removed a budget proposal blocking investigations of physicians who write off-label prescriptions with adverse outcomes for their patients. The amendment was added partly based on Steffen’s admission that he was being investigated by the Board of Healing Arts.
  • A new bill seeks to curb rising incidence of health care violence.
  • Kansas is likely headed to court with opponents of a new set of congressional districts that were approved when the House overrode the governor’s veto last week.
  • Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab told the House elections committee last week that drop boxes are a more reliable and secure way for delivering ballots than the U.S. Postal Service.
  • The Senate tax committee got hot last week when the state Revenue Department was challenged over a $23 million tax bill sent to Netflix and whether it was taxing streaming services. The agency says it’s not taxing streaming services.
  • A Senate committee last week refused to recommend two of Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominees to the Kansas Board of Regents because of concerns about whether they candidly answered a nomination questionnaire. Republican senators were particularly critical in their questioning of former Republican state Sen. Wint Winter Jr.

Food assistance benefits

Lawmakers are moving to roll back a provision of Brownback-era welfare revisions known as The Hope Act that banned food assistance benefits because of  a felony drug conviction.

Last week, the House corrections committee advanced a bill that would remove a ban on anyone convicted of a felony drug offense from receiving food assistance.

The current law bans food assistance for first-time felony drug offenders until they  participate in a drug-treatment program and submit to drug testing.

Benefits are banned for life for second drug felony convictions.

State officials said there is an average of 41 Kansans who are cut off from food assistance each month because of a felony drug conviction.

Supporters of the bill say the current law — enacted in 2015 — only makes it harder for someone to transition back into society, recover from their addiction and rebuild their lives.

“It is already a struggle for people with low incomes and felony convictions to find employment, housing and health care,” Karen Siebert, advocacy and public policy adviser for Harvesters-The Community Food Network, told the committee.

“Denying them food assistance simply increases the risk that they will return to illicit activities to meet their basic needs,” she said.

“The continued punishment of people with drug convictions was painful to see, especially as they embarked on the uncertain journey of reintegration.”

Since 1996, federal law has permanently prevented anyone with a state or federal felony drug conviction — even a simple possession conviction — from receiving food assistance benefits unless states opt out of the ban.

Since then, every state has opted out of the ban either in whole or in part, Josh Gaines, project manager for The Council of State Governments Justice Center told the House corrections committee last month.

Although Kansas is among the 18 states that have partially opted out of the full federal ban, the modified ban implemented in its place is among the strictest in the country, Gaines told the committee.

Republican state Rep. Stephen Owens, chair of the House corrections committee, said the current law singles out felony drug convictions. It does not deny benefits for any other type of conviction, he said.

“If we want our drug felons to rehab, to change their ways or to get into treatment, the last thing they need is hungry families to be able to move themselves forward,” Owens said in an interview.

“Why are we only excluding one group of people, and that’s the people that could really use it for their families,” he said.

In a bill brief prepared for the Republican caucus, state Rep. Eric Smith of Burlington notes that the ban for drug offenders is obsolete because food-assistance recipients no longer receive food stamps that can be exchanged for drugs.

They now receive debit cards that are restricted to food purchases.

“The law originally attempted to address the problems associated with drug users trading food assistance for drugs to sustain their habit,” Smith wrote.

“Food stamps are no longer used, and no evidence exists to support that the prohibition actually curtailed recidivism, or reoccurrence of criminal behavior.”

Smith, a law enforcement officer, asked one opponent of the bill whether someone would have a better chance of success if they could access food assistance benefits while undergoing drug treatment.

During a committee meeting, Smith related how as a child he experienced food insecurity because of income.

“The impact it had on my life in school and choices that I made are always at the forefront of my mind when I hear about these things,” he said.

The conservative-leaning Opportunity Solutions Project — a Florida-based nonprofit — opposed the bill.

It argued that legislators should consider work and treatment-related requirements as a condition to receiving food-assistance benefits.

“OSP believes current law strikes the right balance between ensuring an individual with
a felony drug conviction is required to complete drug treatment and provided with a second chance,” the group said in arguing against the bill.

Eyebrow threading regulations

A bill that could settle a legal dispute over regulations of the practice of eyebrow threading is moving through the Senate.

Last week, the Senate health committee approved a bill exempting the practice of eyebrow threading from the regulations of the state Cosmetology Board.

The bill would allow someone to practice eyebrow threading without being a certified cosmetologist.

The bill stems from a 2020 lawsuit brought by a Johnson County cosmetologist and her family over what they say are excessive regulations for eyebrow threading, a technique that uses a twisted cotton thread to remove unwanted hair.

Jigisha Modi, her husband and mother-in-law filed a lawsuit in Shawnee County alleging that state regulations for threading violate their state constitutional right to “conduct business free from unreasonable governmental interference.”

The lawsuit, which is still pending in district court, contends that the regulations keep Jigisha Modi from hiring her mother-in-law, who has 30 years of threading experience.

The lawsuit says 1,000 hours are required to become a licensed esthetician in Kansas, of which only 40 are devoted to hair removal.

Jigisha Modi, her husband and mother-in-law are represented by the Kansas Justice Institute, which is part of the free-market-oriented Kansas Policy Institute.

Last week, Sam MacRoberts, general counsel for the Justice Institute, appeared before a Senate committee to make the case for the legislation.

MacRoberts told the committee that the Board of Cosmetology required 1,000 hours of training that can cost $16,000 to offer threading services.

“This is a safe and effective process that doesn’t require 1,000 hours of training. It should not require two tests,” he said.

“Jigisha wants to hire her mother-in-law to perform threading in the family salon,” he said.

“But Jigisha can’t hire her mother-in-law because her mother-in-law can’t get through this 1,000 hours of training and the mother-in-law knows how to perform threading.”

He added that the mother-in-law has performed hundreds, if not thousands, of threadings in her home country.

However, opponents of the bill, including the Cosmetology Board, say exempting the practice from regulation would put the public at risk of receiving services without proper training and oversight.

“I think what we are concerned about is making sure that everyone knows how to protect the public, knows how to protect people from staph infections, from herpes, from infectious diseases,” said Nichole Hines, vice chair Kansas Board of Cosmetology.

“It’s not about keeping anyone out of cosmetology as a whole. We would like to see as many people as possible come into the profession,” Hines said.

“But we also need to make sure that we are at all times protecting the public — health and safety coming first at all times,” she said.

The view was echoed by Len Melvin, school owner of Hays Academy of Hair Design with campuses located in Hays and Salina.

“It is important to ask why is this particular service being exempted,” Melvin said in written testimony.

“Is it because individuals do not want to go through the trouble of taking the proper steps to be properly trained and licensed? Why?”

“If we are serious about properly regulating beauty services to protect those receiving services, I ask this committee to not exempt this service,” Melvin said in written testimony.

Claeys backs off Revenue Department 

The Senate tax committee approved the Revenue Department’s budget Friday without making any drastic changes that state Sen. J.R. Claeys had promised if the agency didn’t address a $23 million tax bill sent to Netflix.

Claeys accused the agency last week of taxing streaming services in violation of state law — a charge the agency denied.

“A lot can happen in 48 hours,” Claeys said Friday morning, two days after taking the agency to task over the bill.

“I am confident that this agency will resolve this issue, and I assure the committee that as the carrier of this budget through the process all the way to the end, I will pursue them should they not,” he said.

Claeys said his reaction to the Netflix bill was not a partisan attack on the agency.

“This is not about a $23 million tax bill. It’s about leverage to extract a consent agreement to collect the unauthorized tax going forward,” he said.

“If there is a tax applied to streaming services, that is most definitely a question for the Legislature,” he said. “You have only one recourse when an agency abuses its power. You hold their budget.

“This is it. It’s your opportunity to hold an agency accountable for ignoring decades of precedent and rewriting a statute.”

The agency has declined to discuss the matter, saying it’s forbidden from discussing specific tax cases.

School property tax break

The Senate tax committee last week took up a bill raising the property tax exemption to $100,000 for the statewide mill levy for public education.

The proposal calls for increasing the property tax exemption for the statewide 20-mill levy from the first $20,000 of taxable residential property to $100,000.

The proposal would save taxpayers roughly $150 million a year, or about $443.9 million over three years.

The bill would require a corresponding increase in the state general fund to offset the loss of property taxes incurred when the exemption is raised.

No one spoke in support or opposition to the bill during the roughly eight-minute hearing.

The Kansas Association of Realtors backed the legislation in written testimony, however.

The Realtors asked lawmakers to consider increasing the $20,000 exemption, which has been in place since 1997 when the statewide property tax levy was 27-mills.

The association “has argued in the past that the $20,000 exemption has not remained meaningful because, without being increased, the exemption failed to keep pace with inflation or home values,” Realtors lobbyist Mark Tomb said in written testimony.

“If not adjusted,” he said, the “exemption loses its intended level of property tax relief.”

Former state Rep. Jim Karleskint, representing United School Administrators, was neutral on the bill, although he urged caution.

“Having been a former legislator, I’m certainly not going to say we don’t need property tax relief,” Karleskint said. “I feel we do.”

However, he urged lawmakers to be cautious in approaching the issue. He said any increase in the tax exemption should be done in increments.

“I know the Legislature’s been committed to funding schools as well as many other responsibilities that you have.

“A hit in the general fund could really impact all those things.”

Redistricting fundraising

In the backdrop of the debate at the Capitol over new congressional maps has been the National Democratic Redistricting Committee chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The committee has a nonprofit group called the National Redistricting Action Fund, which has a team of lobbyists working in Topeka.

The committee has a 527 tax-exempt organization, which reported raising about $3.3 million from July 1, 2021, through the end of the year and about $5.8 million for the year.

There’s also a separate political action committee that raised about $1.2 million for the second half of 2021 and $2.6 million for the entire year.

Some of the 527’s biggest donors include the United Food and Commercial Workers International, which gave $200,000 during the second half of last year and $500,000 for the year.

Other big donors included $250,000 from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and another $250,000 from her leadership PAC. They gave $750,000 for the year.

Erica Lawson, a physician at the University of California-San Francisco, also gave the committee $250,000.

The chief executive officer of the cloud communications company Twilio, Jeff Lawson, gave $250,000 to the 527 arm of the redistricting group.

This is not to say that Republicans don’t have big money groups backing their efforts; it’s just harder to track.

The Republican efforts are concentrated in a private trust, which means it’s not required to make public information about its donors, expenses and tax records.

The National Republican Redistricting Trust is run by Adam Kincaid, who has worked as special projects director at the Republican National Committee and as deputy political director for the Republican Governors Association.

Kincaid also serves as the executive director of Fair Lines America, a 501(c)(3) organization. It raised about $950,000 in 2018, tax records show.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie co-chair the redistricting trust

The trust also runs the National Republican Redistricting PAC, which raised about $34,000 for the last six months of 2021 and about $45,000 for the year.

It received $5,000 from Florida U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s leadership PAC called Maintaining All Republicans in Office and $5,000 from the leadership PAC of U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina called the Innovation Political Action Committee.

It also received another $5,000 from a leadership PAC affiliated with the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Warren endorsement

Republican state Sen. Kellie Warren landed the endorsement of another conservative group with the backing of Kansas Family Voice for attorney general.

Once known as the Family Policy Alliance, the organization endorsed Warren over former Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi.

Kellie Warren

“Many candidates hold conservative values, but few have shown they can take action to effectively defend those values,” Brittany Jones, the group’s director of policy and engagement, said in a statement.

“When it comes to defending life, families, and religious freedom, Kellie Warren has proven that she can actually win,” Jones said.

“The next attorney general will have her work cut out for her defending pro-life and pro-family laws,” Jones said.

“We will always support the candidate that not only shares our values but will also relentlessly work to defend them. The stakes are too high for us to do otherwise.”

Midwest inflation jumps again

New numbers out last week showed that consumer prices in the Midwest had jumped 7.9% in January from a year earlier, with some of the biggest increases for food and energy.

Nationally, the price for all items rose 7.5% for the 12 months ending in January, the largest 12-month increase since February 1982.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed last week the consumer price index for food in the Midwest for January was up 8% year over year, with the biggest spike in the price of meat, poultry, fish and eggs rocketing up 13.3% from a year earlier.

In the Midwest, prices for food at home increased 8.5% since January 2021, while prices for eating out increased 7.1%, the federal data shows.

Energy prices jumped substantially, largely because of the rising cost of gas at the pump.

Overall, energy prices were up 25% from last year, driven by a 37.2% increase in the price for gasoline.

Prices paid for natural gas service jumped 31.1%, and prices for electricity increased 4.4% over the past year.

The index for all items — not counting food and energy — was up 6.4% compared to January 2021, with new and used motor vehicles up 24.8%, housing increasing 4.6% and household furnishings and expenses climbing 11.6%

The Midwest region includes Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Vaccine poll

With all the hot discussion last week about vaccines as it related to a bill that was kicked out of the Senate health committee — but later returned — there was a new poll released about how Kansans view vaccines.

The survey, done by Republican pollster Pubic Opinion Strategies, showed that 95% of Kansas voters believe taking vaccines for diseases like measles, mumps and polio is extremely or very important to maintaining good health.

The poll was commissioned by Nurture KC, a Kansas City nonprofit, which seeks to reduce infant deaths and improve family health.

The poll found that 65% believed both parents of a child should be required to provide a statement for religious exemptions to wellness vaccines, and 64% believe religious exemptions to wellness vaccines should require an annual review.

Sixty-one percent believe religious exemptions to wellness vaccines should require documentation from a religious leader.

The poll was done Jan. 27 to Feb. 3. Pollsters surveyed 600 registered voters, with 312 landline respondents and 288 online respondents. It had a margin of error of 4%.

Schmidt seeks action against ‘sanctuary’ cities

Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt last week called on the Kansas Legislature to pass a law banning “sanctuary cities.”

His request came in response to Wyandotte County Unified Government’s decision to pass an ordinance that gives undocumented immigrants and others the opportunity to get a photo municipal ID so they can access government services.

The ordinance also prohibits any local law enforcement from working with federal immigration investigations unless the public is in danger.

“The local government in Kansas City last night narrowly adopted an ordinance that, in colloquial terms, designates Wyandotte County in some ways as a ‘sanctuary’ jurisdiction for illegal immigrants,” Schmidt said in a statement.

“In part, the ordinance attempts to prohibit or impede Kansas City law enforcement officers from participating or assisting in the enforcement of immigration law.”

“This action is the latest by a Kansas municipality to limit local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities.”

While the issue has been kicked around in the Legislature before, Schmidt said now is the time for lawmakers to act.

“Every Kansan who visits Kansas City for shopping, dining, health care, recreation or any other purpose deserves to know that the local police department can fully participate in enforcement of applicable law,” he said.

Megaproject incentive

The Kansas Legislature last week approved an economic development incentive worth an estimated $1.3 billion to land what could be one of the biggest economic development projects in state history.

The Commerce Department had sought the incentives to win a recruiting war for a $4 billion manufacturing plan that could employ 4,000 people.

The incentives had been controversial partly because the identity of the company had not been publicly disclosed and only to a handful of lawmakers who signed nondisclosure agreements.

The Senate voted 31-9 to concur with changes to the bill made by the House. The bill passed in the House on Tuesday on an 80-41 vote.

Here’s more coverage from The Associated Press and the Topeka Capital Journal.

Kansas Gas agreement

Kansas Gas customers could see their rates increase anywhere from $5 to $7 per month over five to 10 years after regulators reached a settlement with the company to recover $366 million in deferred natural gas costs during last year’s winter storm.

The commission agreed to allow the company to issue bonds in order spread out the cost of last February’s storm to its customers. The exact rate increase won’t be known until Kansas Gas finalizes the terms of its bonds.

Any proceeds Kansas Gas receives from ongoing federal or state investigations into market manipulation, price gouging or civil suits will be passed on to customers.

Kansas Gas also has agreed to file a plan to assist low-income customers in its service area by Dec 31, 2022.

Here’s coverage from the Insurance Journal, the Capital-Journal and The Associated Press.