GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Rural Kansas communities hope to see roads, internet and taxes addressed in the upcoming 2020 legislative session. But some voters in the state’s southwest corner are worried that these decade-old issues will again take a back seat.
On a Saturday morning at St. Catherine Hospital in Garden City, Republican state House Reps. Marty Long, Russ Jennings and John Wheeler, plus GOP state Sen. John Doll talked to constituents about Medicaid, prison overcrowding and abortion.
Voters, however, voiced concern about what they saw as other, similarly pressing issues in rural Kansas.
Finney, Ford and Seward counties are home to four industrial meatpacking plants, several large-scale feedlots, big-box stores and a transload facility that distributes wind turbine parts. An average of 10,000 vehicles travel in each county per day.
So it’s frustrating to residents and businesses that southwest Kansas is the lone quadrant of the state without a four-lane highway.
James Douglass, a co-owner of DV Douglass Roofing in Garden City, tried addressing the issue when he was a Garden City commissioner 20 years ago. He said “we couldn’t even get a feasibility study buy in from each jurisdiction because it took X amount of dollars.”
He also said discussion of expanding highways in the western half of the state doesn’t garner attention.
“The potential for having a safe highway system that handled high volume to truck traffic between here and Larned is immense,” Douglass said. “But there isn’t any will to make that happen at this point in time with all the other problems or projects or things that people are interested in funding in the state.”
Beth Tedrow, a Garden City Community College trustee, wants to see safer highways.
“If you travel on Highway 83, you … would not believe all the trucks.” she said. “We need passing lanes and I understand that that takes money.”
Doll told constituents that highway funding is important, but didn’t go as far as saying he’d introduce a bill.
“(Rural broadband is) critically important along with health care, highways and everything else — infrastructure in Western Kansas is depleted,” he said. “It needs to be better in all aspects.”
In 2019, a new broadband map showed that approximately 95,000 Kansans don’t have internet access, both in rural areas and in communities surrounding the state’s metropolitan areas.
Middle school counselor Chelle Tedrow, who recently moved into a more rural area of Liberal, has spotty internet access.
“We need it now. We need it quickly,” Tedrow said. “I wish we had innovative ways to come up with money. But I think if we just looked at more creative ways to come up with money and we’d find it somewhere.”
Jennings said broadband is one of several issues — including mental health funding, property tax relief and Medicaid expansion — that his constituents want to see addressed, but there isn’t enough money to go around.
“The question has to be asked that follows up the proposition that we would do something to expand high-speed internet access: How are we going to pay for it?” the Republican said. “Everybody wants. But seldom do we have people come forward and say … we’ve identified a creative innovative way to go ahead and provide a funding stream that will not unduly burden taxpayers and particularly disproportionately burden one segment over another."
Gov. Laura Kelly has said she’s eager to make some changes to the state’s tax code in the 2020 session. A prefiled Kansas Senate bill proposes a repeal of the property tax lid, and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce is urging the state to cut business income taxes after federal tax cut changed the state’s rates.
Doll supported a bill last year that he wants to see reintroduced this year. It would cap property taxes for people over age 65 whose homes are worth $300,000 or less. It would affect thousands of Kansas, as more than 65% of people 65 and over own their homes, though the median value statewide is $145,000.
“They would still be paying property tax, but it can’t go up,” Doll said. “I’ve talked to many seniors that were being taxed out of their home, a home that they had owned for over 30 years, but because assessments had gone up and out, their property tax went up, and they could not afford to live there.”
Douglass said property taxes are a big issue, especially for people living on fixed incomes, but he doesn’t know how much will get done in the legislature during a general election year.
“Everybody’s pointing toward the general election in November until that occurs,” he said. “Maybe in 2021, that session we'll have some progress.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.
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