Welcome to “Kansas Common Sense.” Thanks for your continued interest in receiving my weekly newsletter. Please feel free to forward it on to your family and friends if it would interest them.
I hope you and your family enjoy this holiday season. I send you my best wishes for the year ahead and wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. This week, Jewish families in Kansas and around the world are observing the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah. I wish my Jewish friends and neighbors a very happy Hanukkah. I hope the new year brings a Congress better capable of working together for the well-being of our nation.
On Wednesday, American Alan Gross was released by the Cuban government and allowed to return to the United States. For five years, Alan and his family have endured pain and profound injustice amid his detainment in Cuba. News of Alan's release brings great relief to his loved ones and to every American who has called for his freedom. I admire Alan’s strength and that of his wife Judy, who has worked tirelessly for years to free Alan and reunite her family. During my time in the Senate, I had the opportunity to meet Judy Gross and authored legislation calling on both the American and Cuban governments to expedite his release. I am glad that Alan is finally home and that the Gross family can celebrate this holiday season together.
Following Alan’s release, the Administration proposed to alter America’s policy concerning Cuba in a positive step toward improved economic ties that could benefit citizens of both nations. I have long fought to change the unilateral U.S. sanctions and regulations that restrict the ability of our farmers and ranchers to sell their products to Cuba.
Cuba is only 90 miles from our border, making it a natural market for U.S. agricultural commodities, including Kansas wheat. Cuba imports approximately 80 percent of the food they consume. Wheat is Cuba’s largest food commodity import and second-largest import overall, behind only oil. While the United States has unilaterally erected trade barriers that harm our own farmers, other countries are more than happy to fill this market. For example, this year Cuba has purchased $150 million worth of wheat from the European Union alone.
It simply does not make sense to continue policies and regulations blocking Kansas farmers from this market only for it to be filled by our competitors. Industry experts believe that U.S. wheat could grow to 80-90 percent of the market share in Cuba if the trade restrictions are eased, similar to our market share in other Caribbean nations. Considering it costs an average of $20-25 per ton to ship grain from Europe to Cuba versus about $6-7 per ton from the United States, it makes economic sense for U.S. commodities to make up the lion’s share of the Cuban market.
Kansas leads the nation in wheat milling and production, but many other U.S. and Kansas commodities would also benefit from opening the Cuban market. A 2010 Texas A&M study estimates that easing restrictions and lifting the travel ban could result in $365 million in additional sales of U.S. agricultural commodities, boost the U.S. economy by $1.1 billion, and create 6000 new jobs.
Beyond providing a new market for U.S. farmers, easing restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba may bring about reforms in the repressive Cuban government – reforms that more than 50 years of the current policy have not achieved. Current U.S. policy only serves to limit American’s freedom to trade and travel with the island nation while contributing to the ongoing misery of the Cuban people. A change in our nation's approach that can open Cuba up economically and politically through the exchange of commodities and ideas is necessary.
I have often said, in Kansas we will try anything once – sometimes twice or even three times. However, if we have been trying something for over five decades and it has yet to work, it is time to change direction. It is time to change our Cuba policies. It is time for U.S. farmers and ranchers to truly have market access to Cuba’s 11 million consumers.
In the new Congress I will serve on several key U.S. Senate committees whose jurisdictions have a direct impact on our nation’s economy and the lives of Kansans:
- U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
- U.S. Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee
- U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations
- U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
- U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
In January, we begin to forge a new path. As a member of the Commerce, Banking and Appropriations Committees I look forward to advocating for pro-growth policies that create jobs and more economic opportunity for every American.
In my role on Commerce, Science and Transportation, I will work to provide valuable oversight on a wide range of issues including communications, highways, aviation, rail, shipping, transportation security, fisheries, science, space, interstate commerce and numerous others.
Additionally, there is no group of Americans I hold in higher regard than our veterans, who bravely put their lives at risk to protect the freedoms and liberties we all enjoy. They kept their promise to us and we must keep our promise to them. I am humbled to have the opportunity to continue working on behalf of those who have honorably served our country.
Late Tuesday night, the U.S. Senate passed the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, legislation that enables the creation of tax-exempt ABLE Accounts to assist individuals with disabilities and their families to save and pay for qualified disability expenses. I have been a sponsor of this legislation since 2012, and it will allow individuals with disabilities or the parents of a child with a disability to save money to cover expenses such as education, housing, transportation, employment training, and assistive technology. This new policy will encourage personal responsibility and eliminate barriers to work that can exist within federal entitlement programs. I encourage President Obama to swiftly sign this bill into law as it overwhelmingly passed the House earlier this month. Thanks to Jawanda and Rachel Mast of Olathe, the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City, and the Down Syndrome Society of Wichita for their insight on this important legislation over the past few years. to learn more about Rachel's story.
The ABLE Act was passed in conjunction with H.R. 5771, legislation to extend several temporary corporate and individual tax provisions through 2014. Retroactive to January 1 of this year, H.R. 5771 allows taxpayers to claim these credits for the upcoming tax filing season, which include the restoration of Section 179 financing to its previous $500,000 limit. Critical to the ability of Kansas farmers and small businesses to replace old equipment and stay competitive, the Section 179 limit abruptly fell to $25,000 at the end of 2013 – barely enough to buy a new pickup. Having passed both chambers of Congress, this legislation now heads to the President’s desk for signature.
I spoke on the Senate floor last week about the unique challenges Kansas hospitals and health care providers face caring for patients in our state—often in very rural settings across wide areas. During my time representing Kansans in Washington, D.C., I have had the opportunity to visit each of the 128 community hospitals. Almost every visit involves concerns about the harmful impacts and massive uncertainty caused by the Affordable Care Act, as well as the ever increasing federal regulatory burdens hospitals face as they work to provide quality health care to their local residents. There will be a renewed opportunity in the new Congress to undo the damage caused by Obamacare and present real solutions to problems facing the Kansas health care providers and patients.
Friday morning, I was pleased to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will not move forward with a new, separate beef checkoff. I believe that changes to the checkoff should be supported by producers, not forced upon them by the federal government. Cattle producers I visited with from across Kansas were loud and clear in their objections to USDA administratively creating a new checkoff.
Last month, I sent a letter to USDA expressing my concern that they were acting against the clear wishes of producers. I was concerned that creating a new checkoff would be duplicative and add administrative costs. Perhaps most importantly though, I felt that the concerns of Kansas cattle producers were being ignored. I appreciate that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ultimately listened to cattle producers from across the country who objected to this new checkoff. to learn more.
The invisible wounds of war plague thousands of veterans across our country and there are some who feel the only choice to deal with their wounds is to take their own life. The average suicide rate among veterans is a staggering 22 deaths each day. With epidemic-levels of suicide afflicting veterans, the VA has a fundamental duty to not only provide them the best quality mental health care services but the VA must also do everything necessary to save their lives. I took to the Senate floor on Wednesday evening to share the story of Clay Hunt and discuss legislation that was created in his name to make certain the VA is capable of supporting veterans battling the same struggles he did before tragically taking his own life.
During a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last month, I was privileged to hear Clay’s story directly from his mom, Susan Selke. Susan shared her son’s troubles of reliving the traumatic experiences of war and his disappointment when the VA failed to offer the care he needed to treat his despair. Although it had to be extremely difficult for Clay’s mom to share his story, her courage and willingness to explain what happened to her son gives us the opportunity to identify what the VA must change to save others like Clay in the future.
As a sponsor of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act, I was hopeful the Senate would pass this critical legislation after it unanimously passed in the House earlier this month. This bill would be instrumental in developing a VA system capable of offering first-rate mental health care services, as well as utilizing the expertise of outside organizations to provide support for those struggling from their wartime experiences. It would also provide for a new website that offers veterans information regarding available mental healthcare services; create a pilot loan repayment program for VA psychiatrists; and improve the exchange of training, best practices, and other resources among the VA, Veteran Service Organizations (VSO), and nonprofit mental health organizations to enhance collaboration of suicide prevention efforts.
I was disappointed the legislation was blocked from consideration this week in the Senate. It is critical that the VA follow through on its commitment to our nation’s veterans – especially so families who have lost loved ones know the VA is committed to suicide prevention to care for others who served our country. There should be no excuse for the VA bureaucracy, push back and delays, or acceptance that this is just the way the VA system works. I will urge and sponsor reintroduction of Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act in the new Congress, and will keep working to find solutions and to hold the VA accountable when it comes to providing our nation’s veterans with the timely, high-quality and dedicated care they earned.
On Thursday I continued my Kansas Listening Tour with two stops. First I met with Elk County residents in the community of Howard. The folks who attended wanted to discuss getting back to a normal functioning Senate — passing appropriations bills so Congress has power and authority over our country and it's not governed by executive order. We also talked about maintaining a strong military, taking care of our veterans and making sure our children are getting a well-rounded education. A group representing RSVP from several counties were present and thanked me for my support of their programs throughout the state. Thanks again to Lynne Thompson and the Elk County Farm Bureau for hosting the town hall.
Next, in conjunction with Winfield Kiwanis Club, I hosted a Kansas Listening Tour stop at Baden Square. Thanks to all the area residents who came out to discuss a number of issues including the Affordable Care Act’s impact on community hospitals, the new veterans’ health care law, and how to make certain small businesses survive in rural communities. Thanks to Winfield Kiwanis Club President Ruth Gordon and club member Glen Sambolte for hosting the conversation.
On Friday I visited several business in Johnson County. My day started at Black & Veatch where I met with CEO Steven Edwards and other senior leaders at their company’s global headquarters in Overland Park. Black & Veatch was founded in 1915 by two KU grads and today is one of the largest private companies in the country, employing about 10,000 professionals and with completed projects in more than 100 countries.
Next, I headed to PQ Corporation in Lenexa where I met with Mike Boyce and other members of the PQ team to discuss federal regulations. PQ Corporation manufactures chemicals that make the products we use every day safer or more effective. From ingredients in toothpaste and facial cleaner to water treatment and paint, PQ Corporation work impacts our lives. Thank you again to the PQ team for the informative visits.
I ended my day Friday with a visit to McCarthy Chevrolet in Olathe which also serves Overland Park, Kansas City, Lee's Summit, Independence, Blue Springs, Shawnee, Mission, Topeka, and Lawrence. My meeting with John McCarthy focused on the state of the economy and the type of pro-growth policies Washington can put into place to make certain Kansas business can continue to thrive. It is always inspiring to hear about the innovation and success of great Kansas companies. Thanks again to Black & Veatch, PQ Corporation and McCarthy Chevrolet for the good conversations.
Kay Brada of Lawrence
Don Brada of Lawrence
Terry Holdren of Manhattan
Ryan Flickner of Manhattan
Colby Markham of Thayer
Christopher Bowling of Salina
It is an honor to serve you in Washington, D.C. Thank you to the many Kansans who have been calling and writing in to share their thoughts and opinions on the issues our state and country face. I appreciate the words of Kansans, whether in the form of a form of letter, a Facebook comment or a phone call, who wish to make their voice heard.
Please let me know how I can be of assistance. You can contact me by email by . You can also to contact me through one of my Kansas offices or my Washington, D.C., office.
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