TOPEKA (KSNT) — The upcoming legislative session in Kansas is promising to address major issues offset by the pandemic.
In an exclusive interview with Kansas Capitol Bureau, state Treasurer Lynn Rogers talked about his plans to draft several bipartisan proposals, addressing some of the most pressing issues in the state.
One of the bills focuses on tackling the housing crisis, which has left many Kansans at risk of losing their homes. Rogers said they’re exploring ways to create more affordable housing options for middle-income families.
“There is some low-income housing, but we have a real gap for the folks that are working a job, $15-$20 an hour, to make that affordable,” Rogers said. “Many of our smaller communities don’t have builders or developers that will take a risk and build those properties, so we have to figure out how we can do private-public partnerships.”
A HOUSING CRISIS
Thousands of Kansans faced eviction in August after the federal moratorium ended. According to state housing officials, between 12,000 and 24,000 households were at risk of eviction, and applications for rental assistance averaged over $5,000 per household, putting the state at the “forefront” of a housing crisis.
Rogers said housing is a top priority with the state’s recent housing needs survey showing the need for improvement in several areas.
According to the Treasurer, the new construction market has focused on homes that are available for Kansans making less than 80% of the area median income or over 120% of the area median income over the last two decades, contributing to a growing gap for middle-income housing. Rogers said that most of the housing across the state was also built before 1960, creating a burden on families that are looking for affordable and safe options.
Rogers’ proposal would update the existing Housing Linked Deposit Program, which provides builders and developers in Kansas access to $60 million in low-interest loans to finance housing development, to provide more flexibility to use the money for remodeling.
“The $60 million that’s been set aside for that has just never ever been used,” Rogers said. “So, even when I took office, I said ‘we need to look into what we can do…how do we improve it, so that it can improve the housing stock?'”
Other proposals in the works are focused on retirement and 529 savings plans for training the workforce.
According to a state poll, Rogers said 60% of Kansans don’t have access to retirement savings through their work. His office is working with AARP to draft a bill for a work and save retirement program.
“They can invest, and if they move from one job to another job, it’s portable. They don’t lose their investment, or their balance,” he said. “For many of these people, they haven’t been able to put a dime away for retirement. This will help them do that.”
REBUILDING THE WORKFORCE
Since January, the state has also seen a 33% increase in 529 savings accounts, which offers tax benefits when used for certain education expenses for a designated beneficiary, usually a child. Rogers said he doesn’t expect that growth to slow down anytime soon, as they spread the word about the latest changes to the program.
“We’re promoting it, we’re talking to people about why it has improved,” Rogers said.
Contributions to a 529 plan are tax-free. Rogers said a parent can contribute up to $3,000 for an individual, and couples can contribute up to $6,000.
The money can be used for a four-year college, two-year colleges or vocational schools. It can also be used for approved, union apprenticeships.
“If you don’t know that they’re going to go to college, they need to do one of those things to get additional training, and it can be used for a lot more than ever before.”
According to Rogers, the program has many benefits. He said he’s seeing adults open up accounts to pursue their graduate degree. The proceeds can also be used for up to $10,000 in student debt.
He said he plans to continue to promote and advance the 529 plans to support registered apprenticeships and trade school. He said he’s hoping the increase in trained labor will help with the state’s need for rebuilding and construction.
“If people can be financially self-sufficient, they have greater control, and greater freedom for themselves,” Rogers said. “How do we build the state and make it a stronger place for families, for individuals, and for businesses…”
The Treasurer’s office plays several roles in getting legislation passed, including proposing legislative priorities, providing fiscal impact reports, and supporting legislative work in helping create cost-effective solutions. This played a critical role last Spring, in helping lawmakers implement a new city-utility loan program for those impacted by the winter storm.
He’s hoping to gain support on both sides of the aisle.
“It’s not a red or blue issue, it really is a Kansas issue,” Rogers said. “So, I’m hoping that we can really deal with that not as a win or loss but a win for the state.”
His office is taking extra steps to prepare for the spring 2022 legislative session, hiring a new Director of Legislation and Special Projects to help focus on their policy goals, and appointing an interim Assistant State Treasurer to assist with managing the agency.
Rogers said they’re preparing for any legislation that comes their way.
“We’ll continue to monitor the legislation that comes to us… the education programs will come back, the medical marijuana bill will come back… we want to make sure that we have the tools that we need here and the resources to implement those if that’s the desire of the Legislature.”