Politics & Government

Kansas House OKs bill allowing disabled to save more without losing benefits

Kansas House of Representatives chambers
Kansas House of Representatives chambers File photo

A bill to allow disabled people to save for their future without losing government benefits passed the House on Wednesday and is headed to the governor’s desk.

The bill, called the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, would enable people with disabilities to set up an account similar to a college savings plan.

They or their families could put as much as $14,000 a year in the account and build up a nest egg of $100,000.

Money invested in the account could grow tax-free and be used for future expenses such as housing, education and transportation, said Rep. Erin Davis, R-Olathe, who sponsored the measure.

Disabled people now can lose eligibility for government care and medical benefits if they have more than $2,000 in assets, she said.

The savings accounts would be administered by state Treasurer Ron Estes, who runs the Learning Quest 529 college-savings program and is a big supporter of the ABLE Act.

“I’m elated that we’ve successfully crossed this first milestone and look forward to seeing this initiative through to the finish line,” Estes said in a statement.

The bill is designed to help people like Jonathan Warren, who works for Envision in Wichita but wants to find better-paying employment outside of a workshop for people with disabilities.

Warren, who was born with brain damage and cerebral palsy, has a small savings account that he mostly uses to pay his phone bill each month.

“I try to put some of that away for emergencies,” he said.

His mother, Linda Warren, said the current income limit puts people like Jonathan in a tough spot.

If they can land a decent-paying job, “they would lose the support that’s helped to get them to where they’re at,” she said.

Kevin Fish, executive director of the disability services organization ARC of Sedgwick County, said some clients there have run into problems maintaining eligibility when they get a raise or inherit money from a well-meaning relative.

Building a bank account is especially important for families of children with developmental disabilities, because they will likely outlive their parents and could end up destitute and dependent on the government.

Jawanda Mast of Olathe was on the House floor as a guest when the bill passed Wednesday. She has advocated for it at the federal level for years and said it would be a godsend for her 15-year-old daughter Rachel, who has Down syndrome.

Her daughter’s dream is to “grow up and live in a pink house,” Jawanda Mast said. “We want to help her. This will allow us to do that.”

During debate in the Legislature, the pink house became a symbol of the aspirations of people with disabilities.

The state ABLE Act brings Kansas on board with a federal version signed by President Obama in December.

It passed 116-4 as part of bundle of financial-services bills to come before the House on Wednesday.

Rep. Pete DeGraaff, R-Derby, spoke against it on the floor, saying it may not be the best way to help disabled people and that it was rushed through before all the ramifications are known.

“Bottom line, this is a federal program coming to the state saying, ‘If you want to, state, you can do this, but we’re not even sure what the rules and regulations are yet.’ … This is a conceptual bill. It’s kind of like Obamacare.”

Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, spoke in support of the act.

“We think it’s a good piece of legislation to help our disability children,” she said. “We want to look out for them in the future. Yes, it is a federal piece of legislation, but we’re trying to implement something good here on the state level.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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