The federal representative for most of eastern Kansas stopped in Saturday morning for conversation largely dominated by topics on the economy.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, spoke at 9 a.m. at the Santa Fe Depot, 200 S. 10th St. in Atchison, during the Legislative Coffee event held by the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce and the Medicalodge of Atchison. She was joined as a speaker by state Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison. Also in attendance was Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, who doesn’t currently represent the area but is seeking the Republican nomination to replace Jenkins, who announced her retirement last year.
During her speech, Jenkins indicated she is not in favor of the views on international trade taken by President Donald Trump after being asked about the issue by Melinda Pregont, doctor of chiropractic, who owns Trusted Care Chiropractic, 310 Commercial St. in Atchison.
In a separate interview with Atchison Globe, Jenkins said that while she supports the president, she and her colleagues in Congress are striving to inform him on why it would be bad for Trump to go through with his vow last week to slap a 25 percent tariff on foreign aluminum and steel exporters.
“We’re gonna try,” she said. “I’m a member of the (U.S. House) Ways and Means Committee that has jurisdiction over trade and tariffs ... Just last week, we went over to the White House with the president himself to just try to educate him on what free trade means to our constituents. And, I think he’s not where we we’d like him to be yet, but we’re going to continue to work with him as the legislative body, to work with the White House to see if we can do right by the American people.”
Pregont said she approved of Jenkins’ statements on the issue, but is concerned that firms such as Atchison Tubular Services, which is replacing the former Northwest Pipe Co., and other Kansas businesses that depend on access to cheap raw materials will suffer if Trump’s policy is allowed to be fully enacted.
“These are people’s lives that we’re dealing with,” she said in an interview after Jenkins spoke. “I’m concerned about trade wars. I’m concerned about employment ... I get concerned about where we’re headed, especially with these tariffs.”
Fitzgerald said he hopes that Trump isn’t serious about immediately applying tariffs, and is attempting to pressure U.S. trade partners to the negotiating table. He said he would support such a move.
“President Trump has made this a signature issue from the very beginning in that he is an isolationist to some degree,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a protectionist, definitely. He is using this I believe as a negotiating ploy with other countries. I don’t think he expects to get the tariffs that he’s talking about — that belongs to the legislature. I think he is trying to negotiate some better deals ... I would hope that’s what he’s doing.”
However, Fitzgerald said he believes Trump does not have the legal authority to apply tariffs without Congressional backing, and should be stopped from attempting to do so.
“If he did implement what he’s talking about with these tariffs, it would be very bad for the American economy, to include possibly the agricultural economy, which we’re very interested in,” he said. “If this thing is going the way it looks at the moment, I am not with him. I don’t think we need to be hurting our economy basically out of spite.”
At the legislative coffee, the speakers also talked about taxation and revenue at both the state and federal levels. Jenkins, a certified public accountant, said she is proud to have been a key sponsor of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, passed in December.
Republican leaders nationwide have said that the legislation will be key to growing the economy, a message Jenkins echoed. Since she is leaving Congress, she jokingly told the crowd that the situation represents future business opportunities for her.
“I mean, I did renew my license last year, so if you need your taxes done, come and talk to me,” Jenkins said. “I happen to know a thing or two about the current tax code — I helped write it.”
On the state level, Eplee cited state estimates that Kansas has taken in about $90 million above previous forecasts in tax revenue this year so far. It’s a relief after previous years of fiscal crisis, he said, and a sign that the state does not need and should not seek to repeat income tax increases that passed last year.
There is also some talk in Topeka, Eplee said, that the new revenues may allow the legislature to increase K-12 education funding over the next several years in a way that might satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court and put an end to the yearslong series of lawsuits by the state’s school districts.
A rough consensus among lawmakers and school finance experts has determined that a funding plan worth about $600 million to $700 million will be needed to do that. Eplee has a unique perspective on the issue in that he is a member of the Atchison Public Schools USD 409 Board of Education in addition to serving as a legislator and working as a physician at Atchison Hospital.
“If we had to come up with $600 million in one year, no way we have the capacity for that,” Eplee said. “Maybe in 3 to 5 years, if we spread it out, that could be done. I have confidence that our school districts would use those funds very appropriately. USD 409 has had conversations about how they’d use it for a while ... Right now, we gotta focus on getting through this year.”
Despite the new money to work with, Eplee said that legislators should still seek to permanently end this type of court battle via a constitutional amendment.
The exact approach of such a proposal remains unclear. It would require two-thirds of all legislators to support it, and then it would go on the Nov. 6 general election ballot for Kansas voters to adopt or reject. Eplee said Kansas courts shouldn’t be dictating what levels of funding are acceptable or not — only that the level of funding provided is equitably distributed.
If schools do receive extra funding, Eplee said, one purpose districts should consider focusing it on is student safety, such as via arranging for more school resource officers, in the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Using trained officers and other carefully planned security methods to “harden” schools against assault would be prudent, Eplee said.
“Do we need to send an armed guard with each child every day to school? No, that’s absurd,” Eplee said. “We have to figure out how to harden targets so they’re just safe. I’m not advocating for teachers to be armed or to set up TSA checkpoints at school entrances ... We do have to keep an open mind on this issue.”
During the public safety conversation, event attendee John Ernst asked a question about sex trafficking in the region and what Congress is doing about it. Jenkins said it has been a top priority for her.
“I’ll be honest with you, as a simple country girl, I once didn’t know very much about this,” Jenkins said. “I had no idea how bad the situation is. It’s so hard for law enforcement to track it. And the problem is, not all of the victims want to escape. These women, God bless them, they get three square meals a day and they just feel that is their lot in life. They sometimes go back even after being rescued. It’s a national epidemic.”
Eplee cited his support in 2017 for enacting SB 40, now a law, which requires all Kansas commercial truck drivers to take a course identifying and reporting possible sex trafficking activity. That’s significantly increased sex trafficking arrests, he said, but the issue remains.
“These are multi-state networks,” he said. “It’s much more pervasive than you can imagine.”
For information on contacting area legislators, see information on Page 6. Call the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce at 913-367-2427 for information on future legislative coffee events.