May 17, 2023

Kansas Action for Children sounds alarm on anti-vax, food security and child care bills

Posted May 17, 2023 6:30 PM
Kansas Action for Children health policy adviser Heather Braum says an anti-vaccination bill vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly would have triggered an irresponsible change in state law placing the life of children in jeopardy. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Action for Children health policy adviser Heather Braum says an anti-vaccination bill vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly would have triggered an irresponsible change in state law placing the life of children in jeopardy. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — Health policy adviser Heather Braum welcomed Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of legislation undercutting influence of public health officials during disease outbreaks and weakening public support for routine vaccination programs beneficial to children in school and child care facilities.

Braum, who works for the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children, said House Bill 2285 passed by slim margins in the House and Senate. It’s unlikely the bill rejected by the Democratic governor could be given new life with a veto override because the Legislature officially adjourned until January 2024. Lawmakers could convene for a special session.

The public health bill drew strength at the Capitol from angst within the anti-vaccination movement about the response of state and county government to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included directives for some businesses to close and for some people to stay home as much as possible.

“The thing is these infectious diseases that would be impacted by some of the proposed legislation are harmful or even deadly to young children,” Braum told the Kansas Reflector podcast. “I get emotional when I talk about it because it’s not easy to sit here and say, ‘Decisions made by the Legislature will kill children.’ ”

The Republican-led Legislature voted to limit the state and county officials to issuing recommendations rather than mandates in terms of limiting mass gatherings or quarantining of individuals. If Kelly’s veto were to stand, the Legislature could revisit the issue next year.

House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Republican from Wichita who supported the bill, said the objective was to restrict the influence of unelected government workers to advisory roles during public health emergencies. He said questions of individual liberty raised in times of crisis ought to be entrusted to people directly elected by Kansas voters, such as members of the House and Senate.

Kansas Action for Children tracked or testified on numerous bills at the statehouse, but paid particular attention to reform tied to child care regulation, food insecurity and vaccination policy.

Child care standards

Daniel Klaassen, education policy advisor with Kansas Action for Children, said the Legislature responded to a shortage of high-quality child care by adopted a bill lowering education standards for staff licensure and raising the caregiver-to-infant ratio.

He said the Legislature’s vote to lower safety standards in House Bill 2344, which was vetoed by Kelly, ignored the necessity to attract more workers to the field by raising compensation while prioritizing safety of children.

“We know that we need to reregulate the industry, not deregulate the industry, because the primary purpose of regulations is to keep children safe,” Klaassen said. “When you are messing with regulations to increase workforce to boost the economy, as we heard several times, that really makes you wonder.”

The Kansas House attempted in the closing week of the session to override the governor’s veto, but fell short of the two-thirds majority required.

Under the bill, training required of child care workers would have been reduced from 16 hours to 12 hours. It would have changed the infant-to-caregiver ratio to four-to-one, rather than three-to-one. At the same time, the definition of infant would have been amended to 12 months or less, a reduction from 18 months or less.

Klaassen said the Legislature didn’t consider subsidies for employee salaries or benefits that would have a substantive influence on willingness of people to work in the field. The median wage of a child care provider in Kansas is $10.90 an hour, which would be below a fast-food wage.

He said other states or local governments had worked with business to subsidize care options so “providers can really make a meaningful living doing this critical work for our state.”

Politics of food

The House and Senate mustered sufficient votes to override Kelly’s veto of a bill establishing barriers to low-income people 50 to 59 years of age seeking to qualify for federal food assistance. The Legislature last year imposed comparable employment and job training restrictions on Kansans 18 to 49 years of age who applied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Enactment of House Bill 2094 could make it more difficult for 7,000 older Kansans to access food assistance, said Erin Melton, food policy advisor at Kansas Action for Children.

Melton said the law withdrew from adults without dependents a benefit providing about $2 per meal. The bill wasn’t flexible enough to take into account people who held down one or more jobs but didn’t consistently meet the 30-hour weekly minimum, she said.

“If they’re not working at least 30 hours a week, they have to be assigned to an employment and training program, even if they don’t need it,” Melton said. “The employment and training program was already available to these people voluntarily. So, the people who need help, you know, writing a resume or finding a job or getting some training to get higher paying jobs, they already could do that.”

“This bill is not helping people find jobs,” she said. “What it’s doing is kicking people off who should still be eligible.”

Melton said Kansas was among the nation’s most restrictive states in terms of SNAP eligibility. In 2019, the year for which the most recent statistics were available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked Kansas 48th in terms of access to food assistance.

SNAP funding allocated to Kansas but not appropriated has been either diverted to other state initiatives or gone unspent.

“It’s not like we are ‘saving the money’ when people aren’t receiving SNAP,” she said. “And we know that the employment and training program specifically is really expensive to implement. Those administrative costs we split with the federal government 50-50. We are expanding the state’s spending on this program only to help fewer people.”