Mental health aid a big issue at legislative forum

When state Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, asked the audience at Saturday's legislative forum whether they wanted big-box and other food stores to start carrying strong liquor, all but a few of the 70 or so put up their hands to vote "no."

It was one way residents of south-central Kansas conveyed their opinions to state lawmakers at their first local forum of the legislative session at the Wichita State University Hughes Metropolitan Complex.

Residents heard that one lawmaker is interested in looking at school choice and that foster care bills have been introduced, including one that recognizes grandparents as interested parties.

Residents, in turn, asked legislators not to cut mental-health services in their latest round of budget reductions, and not to support a stricter voter ID proposal.

Several people spoke in favor of not cutting help for the mentally ill, especially since calls to community health centers are up and the state has closed some mental health hospitals in favor of putting people back into the community. Former state Sen. Rip Gooch told lawmakers that while he agreed with that approach, the state has to help those with mental illness live in the community.

"We have to take care of them," Gooch said.

Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, said that her nephew died from schizophrenia two years ago, and she also wanted to find other areas to cut. Ward said cuts to mental health services always ended in higher costs elsewhere, such as in the corrections system.

Kyron Cox, a student at Northeast Magnet High School, said he was a first-time 18-year-old voter opposed to the voter ID proposal by Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, agreed, saying that showing a voter ID card that every voter receives in the mail should be enough when it comes time to go to the polls.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, pointed out that he was still getting voter registration mailings for two of his grown children who no longer live at home, and said he could easily register as them and vote absentee in their name. "We need to shore up the system" while not stifling others, he said. "They are two different issues."

Deborah Sanders of Wichita said she was a disabled senior citizen who was distressed by the many cuts the disabled have had to deal with. When transportation funding was cut and she couldn't get out, "you took away some of our dignity," she told the legislators. She also said there were too many regulations that penalized low-paid caregivers.

Faust-Goudeau responded, "I wish more people would speak out like you." She said she receives calls from people with disabilities who can't get around and helps them get to such things as doctor's appointments. She pointed out that anyone could drive down to 21st Street and see residents of the Timbers trying to navigate the snow in their wheelchairs.

One reason the temporary 1-cent sales tax increase was approved last year was so that such services would not be cut, she said.

In response to a request that parents be able to spend their tax money on whatever school they choose for their child, newly elected Rep. Joseph Scapa, R-Wichita, said school choice was something that several legislators on the Education Committee were starting to explore, but that it would have to be proposed only after appropriate research was done.