Just hours before she testified before the U.S. House Financial Services Committee to advocate for continued support from the federal government to help states recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19, Gov. Laura Kelly spent time with the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce Government Matters Committee, Thursday morning.
Kelly’s talk was part of the Chamber’s annual Day In Topeka, which was conducted virtually this year due to the pandemic. From her office in Topeka, the governor discussed the rollout of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s new COVID-cluster reporting system, economic development initiatives, infrastructure improvements, education and Medicaid expansion, with local legislators, business leaders, educators and community stakeholders.
Senator Jeff Longbine said he had been in conversations with Simmons Pet Food, Emporia’s second largest employer, since KDHE’s cluster data was reported Wednesday. According to KDHE, Simmons was listed as having an active cluster with 66 total infections. Longbine said that information was not entirely accurate.
“They have had 67 cases since March,” Longbine said. “They currently only have eight active cases, and so their feeling is that the KDHE web site does not necessarily tell the whole story. People look at that, and infer that they have 66 active cases now. Their contract tracing and our local health department’s contact has shown that none of the eight had contracted that at the facility, but they are in a panic situation today because their customers are calling; they are concerned about plant safety and food safety and whether they should cancel orders or not.”
Longbine said those numbers needed to be accurate if the information was going to be released to the public.
“They need to reflect the current situation,” he said, adding that the Kansas City Star had reported on clusters at University of Kansas fraternities that had not been listed as part of the KDHE cluster information. “It makes me question a little bit about the accuracy of the list that was put out.”
Kelly said she agreed with Longbine on the issue of accuracy in reporting.
“I looked at the list and ... the marker is 20 cases within the last 28 days — I think that’s how you get on the list,” she said. “But, what the list as it’s being presented, has all of the cases from ever. That is representing a skewed message, and I think the intent is not to slap down our businesses, obviously. It is to provide the public with information that they need, and so I’ll work with KDHE to figure out a different way to present that information so that we are getting the information, we’re being transparent with the public, but we are not presenting an incorrect image. I can completely understand why some folks would be pretty upset with what’s out there.”
Longbine said he appreciated the governor’s attention to the matter.
Education and child care
USD 252 Southern Lyon County Superintendent Mike Argabright said, as a school administrator, he saw firsthand the need for after-school and summer care programs for children. With the recent discontinuation of the Kansas Reading Roadmap program, Argabright said it was even more important to offer quality after-school programming across the state.
“It is critically important after six months of absence and some of the gaps that we are seeing,” he said. “It’s amplified from my seat. I’d just like that on the radar.”
Kelly said after-school programming was an important issue to her — she was the first state senator to get funding for after-school programming into the budget — and she was currently working with her cabinet to fill gaps in Kansas communities.
“Since the pandemic has occurred, subsidies for child care have been high on our priority list,” she said. “Just [Wednesday] the SPARK Taskforce recommended a fair chunk of change go into child care so that we can help, particularly with the school districts. You’re having to operate in very odd circumstances. We understand the need to have access to child care.”
Julie Johnson asked Kelly how participation in the 2020 Census was looking statewide. Kelly said she believed Kansas was among the top four in the country for having people counted.
The state had pushed online Census completion, but there were also Census workers going out to connect with individuals throughout the state as well. Every uncounted person in Kansas costs the state about $2,000 in funding per person each year. Over 10 years, that’s $20,000 per person.
Chamber CEO Jeanine McKenna said it was gratifying to hear the governor talk positively about work that was being done in the Emporia area. She said Longbine and Representative Mark Schreiber work hard to communicate the needs of the community with the statehouse, and it was “a great confirmation” that Emporia was doing things right.
“We are keeping our name in front,” McKenna said. “I give a lot of credit, not only to days like this and our communication with her office and state agencies, but also to our elected officials. Representative Schreiber and Senator Longbine do such a good job representing us as well.”
McKenna said she was pleased with Kelly’s work in reinvigorating the Kansas T-Works program — a 10-year, $8 billion transportation program designed to create jobs, preserve highway infrastructure, and provide multimodal economic development opportunities across the state.
Overall, Kelly said she was impressed with the resiliency of the Emporia community, as well as Lyon County’s commitment to growth, even through the last six months.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I admire your community’s Glass Blown Open disc golf tournament and DK bicycle event,” she said. “I began my career in Kansas as the first executive director of the Kansas Recreation and Park Association. I have a deep appreciation for activities like these that promote outdoor recreation opportunities and encourage local tourism. For many years, Emporia has consistently outdone itself with these events, bringing thousands of competitors every year. I know how much work goes into events like this, and I genuinely regret that COVID-19 has put both contests on hold this year, but the Emporia community is resilient.”