Monthly Archives: January 2006
HELP FOR SENIORS WITH MEDICARE PRESCRIPTION DRUG COVERAGE
More and more stories continue to surface regarding problems with the Fed’s rollout of the Medicare Part D drug benefit program. Nationally, thousands of low-income senior citizens have had trouble enrolling in the program. Kansas pharmacies have been unable to confirm coverage, refills have been limited and telephone lines have been clogged for hours to get information. Pharmacists are spending hours on the phone trying to get their elderly customers enrolled so that prescriptions can be filled or refilled.
The state has spent over $1 million to provide emergency assistance to pharmacies that were trying to fill prescriptions for seniors. Thousands of Medicare recipients have sought prescription drugs under the program since its start Jan. 1 only to encounter computer glitches showing they weren’t enrolled. Governor Sebelius has ordered the state to pick up the tab for drugs until problems in the federal system were ironed out. The state received 14,000 claims in less than a week.
Most of the problems were with 42,000 low-income Kansans who were considered “dual eligible” for Medicare and Medicaid. All told, 402,000 Kansans are eligible for prescription drug coverage under Medicare. The federal health care program said Friday that 158,000 Kansans had enrolled as of Jan. 13. Many seniors could end up choosing the wrong prescription drug coverage because of confusion surrounding the federal Medicare program. Medicare began offering prescription drug coverage in November, with 42,000 poor and frail elderly Kansans automatically enrolled. An additional 360,000 seniors are eligible for coverage but must choose among 41 plans by May 15, or face financial penalties.
Seniors have until May 15 to enroll in a plan. If you need assistance in enrolling in a plan, you can call SHICK at (800) 860-5260 and talk to a trained volunteer in your area who can help you find out which option is best for you or your loved one. Pass this information on to your neighbors, friends, employees, and family members.
HOUSE TAX COMMITTEE REVIEWS MACHINERY AND EQUIPMENT TAX
The House Taxation committee held hearings on the elimination of the property tax on new business machinery and equipment purchased on or after Jan. 1, 2007. The goal of this elimination is to encourage Kansas companies to invest in new technologies to better compete around the world. Opponents of this tax fear that it will mean a drastic loss in revenue for local governments and a shift of the burden to real estate, including homes and farms.
BONDING APPROVED TO COMPLETE HIGHWAY PLAN
The State Finance Council approved $210 million in additional bonds in March to complete the state’s 10-year Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP). The CTP was passed in 1999, but in crisis budget years, sales tax revenue was diverted to protect services to elderly citizens and schools. The plan was restructured in 2004. The plan in 2004 was reliant on federal funds, but a provision allowed bonding if federal funds did not meet the budget to complete all projects.
The State Finance Council includes the Governor, House and Senate Leadership, and the chairmen of both chambers’ budget committee. The bonding passed by a vote of 8-1. By issuing the bonds, the state will be able to keep the commitment made to communities regarding highway projects.
JUDICIAL EVALUATION BILL HEARD BY HOUSE COMMITTEE
A bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee that would provide Kansans with an evaluation of appellate judges and judges selected by the judicial nominating process and appointed by the governor. The idea is to help voters decide whether they should vote to allow judges to remain on the bench when the judges stand for retention.
All seven Kansas Supreme Court justices and 12 Court of Appeals judges, along with 88 of the 161 district court judges, are nominated by a non-partisan process and appointed by the governor. They then are placed on the ballot at the end of each term and the voters vote whether or not they should be retained in their judicial position. Supreme Court Justices have six-year terms; all others have four-year terms. Under the proposal by the Kansas Judicial Council, the Council would appoint a 13-member Commission on Judicial Performance to evaluate the jurists and make public recommendations.
The recommendations would be shared with voters in newspapers and on the Internet and, possibly, through the mail Evaluations would be solicited from attorneys and from jurors. The critiques would deal with such matters as integrity, impartiality, professionalism, administrative skills and temperament. It would not discuss with how jurists ruled on various cases. The judges would get the information before it was made public. Only the results of evaluation of judges who stand for retention would be made public. Elected judges would also be evaluated but the results would be shared only with each judge. That way, the evaluation would be used by the judge to improve their performance but not become a tool for political ads in a contested election.
The proposal was endorsed unanimously by the Supreme Court, the Kansas Court of Appeals, the state district judges association, the Kansas Bar Association and other legal groups. The only concern voiced during the hearings on the bill was the source of funding for the evaluation system. The proposal is to be funded by increasing docket fees by $2 across-the-board, which would raise $770,000. It is estimated that it would cost about $100,000 to publish voters’ guides and place newspaper advertisements to disseminate judge evaluation results. The rest of the cost is for developing the evaluation instruments, circulating them, tabulating them, as well as administrative costs for the Commission’s operation.
Docket fees are paid by litigants who utilize the judicial system. Several conferees, including an organization of collection attorneys, stated that the system is for the benefit of the general public and should be supported by general revenue sources rather than by increasing the costs for those who use the court system.
Missouri, where all judges are selected with a non-partisan merit system and stand for retention rather than elected, has had judicial evaluation by attorneys for some time, but is now considering adding evaluation by jurors.
BILL TO HELP GRANDPARENTS RAISE GRANDCHILDREN
Senate Bill 62 received a hearing in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee this week. The bill helps Kansas grandparents to provide for the needs of grandchildren who would otherwise be placed in foster care. HB 2410 would provide grandparents with resources to care as foster parents for their grandchildren. This program would provide financial assistance to those grandparents whose incomes are less than 130% of the federal poverty limit. This program would also provide parenting classes to grandparents to help them face the special challenges of being a foster parent
LEGISLATURE TO REVISIT CHILD SAFETY SEATS
The Legislature is once again considering a bill that would require children ages 4 through 7 to sit in a height-adjusting booster seat. Similar bills have failed for the last five years. Child booster seats are proven to increase safety by raising children up to a height where a seatbelt fits properly. The Kansas Highway Patrol has been urging this legislation for the last five years.
Many legislators say that the public does not want this kind of legislation because they do not want any further government mandates. Currently, front seat riders are required to wear safety belts and children younger than four must ride in a car seat. Children ages 4 to 13 are required to wear safety belts in the back seat. This bill would require children 4-7 to sit in booster seats until they are 8 years old, weigh 80 pounds, or are 4 feet 9 inches in height. However, the bill only prescribes very light penalties designed to encourage parents to use the seats.
STATEHOUSE DOME TOURS AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC
For the first time in 30 years, the public can climb up the 296 steps to the top of the Capitol Dome. These tours were previously only open to special invited guests of legislators, but now the Kansas State Historical Society is offering tours of the dome 6 times per day during the legislative session.
The tour takes visitors up to the fifth floor of the capitol, up past the 7 and 8 floors, which brings visitors above the glass inner dome and under the copper dome 75 feet above. The tour ends on the observation deck that rings the cupola atop the dome where visitors can enjoy 10 miles of visibility.
Variety of Issues on the Agenda for the 2006 Session
Wow! It seems like it was only a short time ago when the Kansas Legislature wrapped up its contentious special session over the K-12 school finance dilemma. So I guess it was only fitting that on the first day of the 2006 session, the Legislative Post-Audit Division was releasing the details of its much awaited K-12 school finance cost study.
The study found that additional funding needed for the 2006-2007 school year would be at least $316 million using an input based approach and nearly $400 million using an output based approach. An input based approach refers to providing the curriculum, services and programs mandated by the state statutes as well as high school graduation requirements; it does not consider student performance outcomes in determining the level of funding needed. On the other hand, an output based approach refers to meeting the performance outcome standards adopted by the State Board of Education; it is naturally more expensive to meet this type of objective. Not surprisingly, the study also concluded that additional costs associated with students in poverty accounted for approximately $240 million of the additional funding estimate and increased special education costs accounted for approximately $75 million of the increase. Given the large size of the additional cost estimate, we may be in for another session of tough school finance negotiations.
There will be many other topics debated this year as well. In her State of the State address, Governor Sebelius called for elimination of the property tax on new business machinery and equipment purchased after Jan. 1, 2007 as well as doubling prison time for child sex offenders. The Governor also spoke of spending $3.5 million to provide health coverage for 15,000 uninsured children (newborns to 5 year olds) and of giving parents access to tools to block inappropriate web sites, guides showing which TV shows and movies are family-friendly, and limits on access to violent video games. The use of eminent domain proceedings by local government to transfer property from one private owner to another will be heavily debated, and expect to see a “conceal and carry” handgun bill as well.
I will be working hard to push through bills I introduced last year as well as new bills for the 2006 session. House Bill 2372, the “1099 Misclassification Act”, addresses those situations where an employer treats a worker as an independent contractor instead of an employee. This illicit business practice allows employers to avoid paying social security, workers compensation, unemployment insurance, liability insurance, and both overtime and time-off wages. It is also costing our state millions in lost income tax revenues. I will also be introducing bills that address such problems as exorbitant winter utility costs and the lack of affordable health care coverage for small business employees.
In subsequent Signal articles, I’ll be writing in more detail about these and other major issues Kansas is facing. If you have any particular comments or suggestions for legislative initiatives you would like to see me work on, please let me know!
This past Monday, the Kansas Legislature convened the 2006 legislative session. Education funding will be at the forefront of this year’s legislative agenda. However, health care, health insurance, and prescription drug costs remain the number one issues. The next few weeks will be particularly interesting as bills are introduced and committees begin their work. I have already prefiled a eminent domain bill and will be following up with others, addressing such topics as 1) affordability of health care insurance for small business employees and 2) property tax relief for seniors on limited incomes.
Complete daily calendars are available at www.kslegislature.org along with other information on the legislature. As always, I appreciate your input on the many issues facing our state. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need assistance!!
GOVERNOR’S STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESS
Governor Sebelius rolled out several proposals during the State of the State speech, and talked at length of Kansas’ financial turnaround. She called for doubling prison time for child sex offenders and introduced former Kansas State University football coach Bill Snyder to head a new program to mentor children. The Governor also spoke of giving parents access to tools to block inappropriate web sites, guides showing which TV shows and movies are family-friendly, and limits on access to violent video games.
The Governor spent some time in her speech talking about where the state has moved during her first term as Governor. She said her administration helped stabilize state government finances through cuts and efficiencies and without a tax increase. She did not mention that she proposed a tax increase in 2004 for schools that was rejected by the Legislature.
Although her State of the State was somewhat upstaged earlier in the day with a legislative study that said the state should increase school funding, the Governor pledged to work in a bipartisan manner with legislators to meet the challenge. Sebelius’ proposals at a glance:
Taxes – Elimination of the property tax on new business machinery and equipment purchased after Jan. 1, 2007.
Education – A multi-year funding plan with audits of schools to ensure accountability.
Role models – Launching “Kansas Mentors” to be headed by former Kansas State University football coach Bill Snyder who will recruit volunteer mentors for children.
Health coverage – Spending $3.5 million to provide health coverage for children from birth to 5-years-old who currently are uninsured. This will cover an estimated 15,000 children.
Sex offenders – Double prison sentences for child sex offenders and require them to wear electronic tracking devices once released from prison for the rest of their lives. This will place roughly 225 sex offenders under lifetime surveillance.
Military – Add a new tax check-off that will allow Kansans make a donation on their tax form for support services for Kansas military families.
The Governor did not offer any specific recommendations for K-12 education funding as the Legislative Post Audit education cost study was released earlier that day.
POST AUDIT COST STUDY PRESENTED
On the first day of the session, the Legislative Department of Post Audit presented the two cost studies ordered by the Legislature during the last session. The Post Audit report found that the state needs to provide between $400 million and $470 million in additional funding for public schools. The “inputs” audit called for spending at least $316 million more on public schools. That audit assessed the costs of providing the required courses and other ingredients of a Kansas public education as prescribed by the laws passed by the legislature and the state board of education regulations. This audit costed out the inputs considering three levels of class size, since the cost is dependent on how many teachers a district provides to deliver the inputs. For instance, it would cost $624 million to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 20 students per class across the state. The audit also assessed the cost with class sizes of 18 for K-3, and 23 for grades 4-12.
The “outcomes” audit called for at least $399 million. The higher price tag for the second study, which was added during the special session in response the Supreme Court’s finding that school districts are required to meet performance standards which set standards and assess the success of students. The audit found that it would cost $399 million to provide the tools to reach the minimum performance standards this year. Those performance standards will increase each year into the future as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, so the costs will increase over time. The study also found that the weighting for “at-risk” children needs to be higher than the current weight (0.193). The recommended weight is 0.484. At-risk is computed by counting the number of kids in a district that qualify for free lunches using the federal poverty guidelines. The report found a strong correlation between poverty and school failure. The at-risk money is utilized by school districts to provide at-risk programs, which must be approved by the state department of education.
The audit recommended that a new weight be added to the funding formula, an urban poverty weight. They estimated that there are significantly higher costs incurred by high poverty inner city districts. They identify Kansas City, Turner, Topeka & Wichita as qualifying for the weight. In response to questions raised, legislative staff upped the study results, saying the $316 million increase was really $400 million when taking into account additional pension and local budget requirements, while the $399 million was really $470 million.
GOVERNOR PROPOSES HEALTH CARE ASSISTANCE
Governor Sebelius recently unveiled two initiatives to help Kansans save money on medicine. One is geared for Kansans without drug coverage, while the other is designed to help Kansans enroll in the Medicare prescription drug plan.
“Community Rx Kansas” – Low-Cost Medicines for Kansans
Community Rx Kansas will allow Kansans without drug coverage who meet certain income guidelines to get significant discounts on medicine at 286 participating pharmacies statewide. The 150,000 Kansans who are eligible for the plan could see savings of between 15 and 80%. For example, a 90-day supply of Glyburide, which helps treat diabetes, is available for $14.50.
Consumers would normally pay up to $38.
A household can enroll in Community Rx Kansas for $10 a year and buy discounted medicine through local pharmacies that participate in either the Prescription Network of Kansas or the Right Choice Pharmacy network, both of which are home-grown Kansas companies. For enrollment applications postmarked by January 31, 2006, the first $10 annual fee will be waived. For more information or to enroll, visit http://ww.healthykansas.org or call Prescription Network of Kansas at (800) 279-3022 or Right Choice Pharmacy at (866) 424-6423. Pass this information on to your neighbors, friends, employees, and family members.
Helping Seniors and the Disabled Enroll in a Medicare Drug Plan
Governor Sebelius also announced she is devoting $500,000 to provide help for seniors and the disabled to deal with the confusing Medicare prescription drug plan passed by Congress. To help Kansans get help with the Medicare prescription drug plan, Sebelius is devoting resources to increase the number of phone lines and volunteers at SHICK (Senior Health Insurance Counseling of Kansas), an organization seniors know and trust. Seniors have until May 15 to enroll in a plan. Additionally, 40,000 Kansans are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. They were automatically enrolled in a plan as of January 1, but have the option of re-enrolling in a different plan monthly if they choose. To get help enrolling in a plan, you can call SHICK at (800) 860-5260 and talk to a trained volunteer in your area who can help you find out which option is best for you or your loved one. Pass this information on to your neighbors, friends, employees, and family members.
ADDITIONAL FUNDING TO KEEP KANSANS WARM
Another budget piece that has been announced is “WARM Kansas,” which aims to help Kansas families better insulate their homes and save on energy costs. As part of WARM Kansas homes would be fitted with insulation, and would have doors and windows caulked and sealed to reduce drafts. Furnaces would also receive maintenance to ensure both safety and fuel efficiency. Governor Sebelius said the improvements covered under WARM Kansas could reduce home heating costs by up to 20%.
The initiative would provide both grants and loans to Kansas families. Two million dollars would be made available through local lenders via a revolving loan program for families with incomes at or below 80% of the area median income. Another $2 million in grants averaging $2,800 per home would be available to families with incomes at or below 60 percent of the area median income.
The initiative would be funded by using a portion of higher than expected oil and gas severance tax receipts from producers – receipts that have increased as a result of the same higher fuel prices that are driving up heating bills. The Governor’s budget also proposes devoting $1 million of these taxes to help more Kansas families through the federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.