Gov. Sam Brownback opened the 2015 Kansas legislative session Monday with an inaugural speech that emphasized strengthening families as a solution to the state’s financial woes.
Addressing newly elected legislators and statewide office holders in the House chamber, the governor said a “lack of healthy families” plays a major role in poverty, both in Kansas and nationwide.
“While many of our problems are economic and we will be second to none in addressing them, the reality is the solutions are principally cultural and moral,” Brownback said.
He singled out fighting child poverty as a goal of his second term, without offering any policy specifics. Those may come Thursday in his State of the State address.
“We must substantially reduce childhood poverty,” Brownback said on Monday. “A big piece of that will be to strengthen healthy marriage and family. It also involves work and education.”
Brownback faces many challenges this session after defeating Democratic challenger Paul Davis for re-election. The state must cut almost $650 million this year or find new sources of tax revenue to balance the budget diminished by income tax cuts the governor spearheaded in 2012.
Meanwhile, record numbers of Kansas children are in foster care and the state’s mental health system is strained, with Osawatomie State Hospital recently limiting admissions.
Brownback said his second term will focus on making Kansas a model for the nation in renewing the American culture and fostering a respect for all human life — including “the unborn, the infirm, those ravaged by age and those desperate in despair."
He said that starts with strong families willing to sacrifice for each other, and used his parents, Bob and Nancy Brownback, as the ideal.
“If we are honest, we have to admit there is a crisis of the family in our country,” Brownback said. “In my view this is a principal issue that must be addressed for us to move forward."
Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin, said he’s convinced Brownback is committed to preserving family structures despite challenges like the divorce rate. But he said budget issues will dominate the session this year.
“That’s going to be our major challenge through the session … balancing the budget,” Jennings said.
Joan Wagnon, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, released a statement skeptical of the governor’s address.
Wagnon said after four years in office, Brownback had little to show in efforts to reduce child poverty.
“His tax policies have worsened the divide between rich and poor and have benefited the wealthy and well off while reducing programs for the poorer Kansans, such as homestead relief for renters and food sales tax rebates,” Wagnon said.
Prior to Brownback’s address, new elected office holders were sworn in, including Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, a Republican.
New House members were also sworn in, with Republicans swelling their already hefty majority to 97-28.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Republican from Wichita, was chosen as the new chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee. Hawkins, an insurance agent, replaces Augusta Republican Dave Crum, who decided not to run again. Crum had said Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican, would be his choice to lead the committee.
The Senate remains mostly the same, with the exception of two seats held by new Republicans who won special elections to replace Republicans who resigned.
Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook will chair the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee for the third year.
Health-related topics likely to flow through those committees or others include Medicaid expansion, nurse practitioner and mid-level dental provider changes, medical marijuana, “right-to-try” legislation that gives terminally ill patients access to experimental medications, a tobacco tax hike, a repeal of the sales tax on fruits and vegetables, licenses for grocery stores and convenience stores to sell liquor, and a bill for caregivers promoted by the Kansas AARP.
The first week of the session includes committee hearings Wednesday on rural health care, the governor’s 50-year plan to sustain the state’s water supply and Selzer’s new direction for the insurance commission.
The chief executives of KanCare managed care companies also are scheduled to brief legislators Thursday.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.