During a session that seemed to be all budget crisis, the Legislature ended up serving public health and safety in a big way. Long after the shortfall has been erased, 2010 will stand as the year legislators made it easier to breathe and safer to drive in Kansas, and stepped up safeguards for children in home day-care settings.
Led by Gov. Mark Parkinson, both chambers of the Legislature finally agreed that Kansas needed to join the nearly 30 states with statewide indoor smoking bans, effective July 1.
Lawmakers need to get rid of the hypocritical exemption for state-owned casinos next year, and they would have been smarter to plan for an ending balance by passing Parkinson's proposed 55-cent tobacco tax increase. But passing a bipartisan smoking ban was a major victory for public health and a blow against smoking-related illnesses, which are responsible for at least 3,900 deaths and a $927 million cost to taxpayers each year in Kansas.
Many years of advocacy by state Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, paid off in passage of a primary seat-belt bill, which will empower law enforcement officers to pull over drivers for not wearing their seat belts. Donovan got a boost from the $11 million in federal funds Kansas would receive for joining the 31 states with such laws. But it was never about the money, dating back to then-Gov. "Seat-Belt Bill" Graves' call for a primary seat-belt bill a decade ago.
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"It's going to save lives," Donovan said as the bill neared the finish line last weekend. He characterized the embarrassingly low fines — $5 the first year, $10 thereafter — as "baby steps."
Lawmakers also passed a sorely needed ban on texting while driving, which will make offending drivers of all ages subject to traffic stops and $60 fines. No law or penalty will keep every texting addict from practicing this dumb and dangerous habit behind the wheel, but Kansas is now on record as having declared it unlawful.
In addition, legislators did something about the 2,500 home day-care facilities that were neither licensed nor routinely inspected under current law. That should improve Kansas' 47th-place ranking among states for its child care regulation and help working parents find safe settings for their kids.
A number of budget decisions promise to be good for Kansans' health as well, including — as reported by Kansas Health Institute News Service — the restoration of Medicaid reimbursements (which Parkinson had cut by 10 percent), an extra $22.8 million for services for those with physical and developmental disabilities, and $111,000 more for senior meals (the last successfully pushed by Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita).
Rough as the session was fiscally and politically, lawmakers can take pride in these and other efforts, which will have lasting positive effects of Kansans' health and safety.