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2021 session: Lawmakers target food sales tax, other issues

Margaret Allen
Hays Daily News
Hays city manager Toby Dougherty, left, talks with Rep. Barb Wasinger, center, and Sen. Rick Billinger, right, after the legislators briefed the city commission on Thursday about the 2021 legislative session.

The 2021 Kansas Legislature plans again to attack the state’s sales tax on food, according to 111th district Rep. Barb Wasinger.

One strategy is to tax out-of-state Internet sales to offset lost sales tax on food, indicated Wasinger, speaking Thursday evening to the Hays City Commission at its regular work session at City Hall.

Wasinger briefed the commissioners on the legislative session, which convenes Monday.

Such a move would bring in about $26 million, said the second-term Republican lawmaker from Hays.

“The governor would like to make sure there’s equitable tax from all the people on the Internet, so that our local businesses who are paying taxes don’t have to bear all that burden,” Wasinger said.

That money would be put incrementally toward lowering the food sales tax, which is 6.5 cents per dollar now.

Applying the $26 million would bring the tax down to 5.5 cents, she said.

“Which granted, is not a lot, but if we earmark that money every year, we could start bringing it down more,” Wasinger said. “If we don’t start, we’ll never get the food sales tax down.”

Kansas is one of only a dozen or so states that charges sales tax on food, according to KC Healthy Kids, an advocacy group for healthy children and families. The nonprofit says a food sales tax puts an unfair tax burden on low-income people. Neighboring Colorado and Nebraska don’t charge any sales tax on food, while Kansas' is the second highest in the nation, according to KC Healthy Kids.

 “That is hard for all these people that are struggling,” Wasinger said. “It costs a lot of money for them, and $26 million is nothing to sneeze at.”

Unemployment

The Legislature still needs to fix the ongoing crisis at the Kansas Department of Labor with its hold-ups in unemployment benefits, said 40th district Sen. Rick Billinger, who also briefed the commission.

“I still spend an hour or two a day on unemployment,” said Billinger, who this year will help draft the state budget as a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“We still have folks that have not received unemployment,” he said. “We have a disaster at the Department of Labor. We can blame everybody we want to blame, but we’re not fixing it.”

A rocky 2020 saw the head of the department forced to step down, and a claims calamity from an old computer system. Now Kansans who are tired of waiting on benefits are threatening a class-action lawsuit.

“When you get an email from folks that don’t have food,” said Billinger, “or can’t pay the gas or electric bill, or the water’s being shut off, they’re losing their cars, their homes, I mean, it’s sad. We’ve got to do better.”

Foster care

Anther issue of importance includes the much-criticized state of foster care in Kansas. Wasinger said that also will be addressed.

“I don’t know why we can’t find — you can find your phone from anywhere — but we can’t find foster kids. That’s a sin. We can’t do that,” Wasinger said.

Foster parents have told her that a system that follows children to keep track of where they are would do a lot to fix the problems.

“With the computer systems we have now, money needs to go towards that,” she said. “We need to fix that. We shouldn’t have children sleeping on couches. We shouldn’t have children lost. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat, nobody wants that.”

Western Kansas clout

Population shifts are a concern, said City Commissioner and Vice Mayor Sandy Jacobs, noting the latest census shows rural counties in Kansas have lost population, while urban areas grew.

“That means less voter clout and it’s going to be tougher to get things done,” Jacobs said. “How do you hope to go to work through that?”

House districts average around 25,000 people, but some in Johnson County have 44,000, Wasinger said.

“Clearly there has to be redistricting,” she said. “That’s something we can all agree on.”

But rural districts that are already large geographically, like Billinger’s in western Kansas, will just get bigger, she said.

“We have to stand together,” she said. “We can’t be off bickering.”

A strange year

This year, Wasinger will chair the joint rules and regulations committee, serve as vice chair of the higher education budget committee, and also a member of the tax committee, financial institutions, pensions and rural economic development.

“I can tell you,” Wasinger said, “what the House has decided to do with such a strange year.”

For the coming session, which convenes Monday and adjourns May 15, the entire floor has been rearranged, she said. To maintain 6 feet between every representative, some lawmakers will now be seated in the gallery.

“I used to be in Seat 64,” Wasinger said. “I’m in Seat 96 now. So it’s all going to be a big change.”

With this session, she can’t have any visitors in attendance. Freshmen can have one person this year. Two years ago, when she was sworn in for her first term, she was allowed unlimited visitors. 

“Thankfully that was when my mom was still alive, so she could be there,” Wasinger said. “The Senate apparently can have more, but there are only 40 senators, and there are 125 representatives, so it’s a little bit difficult to get everybody as separated as they want.”

Normally the representatives are in daily session on the floor of the House. This year, they will come together on the floor only one day of the week, meeting the rest of the time through the digital platform Webex from their offices. Voting will take place one day a week on the floor, on laptops.

“By state law, we are not allowed to vote anywhere other than on the floor. So whatever day it is we end up being on the floor, we’ll be doing a lot of voting, a lot of discussion,” she said. “It’s all new, we’re going to try everything.”