TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature took a holiday until Wednesday after slugging it out for nearly two months on abortion, taxes and education as well as COVID-19’s health and economic challenges and the extraordinary energy bills resulting from freakish cold weather.
With the Capitol more or less empty, Kansas Reflector journalists Sherman Smith, Noah Taborda and C.J. Janovy got together for a podcast discussion about some of the 124 bills passed by the House and the more modest total of 88 approved by the Senate. Lawmakers introduced more than 700 bills during the 2021 session.
At this juncture, only four earned the blessing of both chambers and the signature of Gov. Laura Kelly. The list included an emergency management bill from January and the recent addition of Senate Bill 88, which offered $100 million in loans to cities hammered by spikes in utility costs. Two bills on her desk await action.
The session’s most poignant moment was advancement of an abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution. The House passed it on the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The Senate matched the minimum two-thirds majority vote to affix it to August 2022 primary election ballots statewide. The amendment would blunt a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court declaring women had a fundamental right to abortion.
Smith: “It’s interesting that rather than pass this immediately to … preserve the regulations that have been installed for abortion providers in Kansas, they put it off to August of 2022.”
If passed by a simple majority of Kansans casting votes, it wouldn’t ban abortion. It would leave open that option if Roe v. Wade was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Janovy: “The strategy about the timing of this election just speaks to the fact that this is a political issue more than anything. It’s not even about abortion. It’s about so many other things.”
Under the radar
The legislative landscape overflows with ideas from politicians, government officials, lobbyists and regular citizens. Look no further than the March 4 legislative index of bills filed and action taken, which runs 193 pages.
Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, slipped into the Capitol to urge the House Elections Committee to get behind a bill stripping the Kansas governor of authority to fill vacancies in the offices of state treasurer and insurance commissioner.
The issue surfaced when Republican Treasurer Jake LaTurner won election to the U.S. House. Kelly appointed Lynn Rogers, her Democratic lieutenant governor, to the job.
Under House Bill 2051, a state party delegate convention would pick replacements to these two elective posts. Of course, the picks would match the political party of the person resigning. The bill was stricken Friday from the House calendar.
Taborda: “Basically, we had one proponent. It was Mike Kuckelman. His argument was, you know, with the will of the voters, they voted Republican and they would like to see a Republican fill that vacancy.”
In February, Rep. Mark Samsel shared insights on House Bill 2120. The bill was designed to close a loophole that shielded spouses from prosecution for sexual battery. Samsel, a Wellsville Republican, raised questions about the sanctity of marriage.
Smith: “He got up and delivered a speech, starting by saying: You know, you should know that I’m not married here. But this seems like a strange idea. And, you know, I can imagine a guy coming home from a long, hard day at work, and he reaches over to grab his wife and you just committed a felony under this law.”
Nevertheless, it was passed by the House on a vote of 110-13.
Back to school
Work of the governor and local K-12 school boards during the pandemic inspired a flurry of bills. Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, wanted to compel districts to bring students back for in-person instruction and forbid return to online-only teaching.
Smith: “I think everyone recognizes that this is not ideal for children in public schools. But there’s also this balance between the safety of everybody that those children interact with from the teachers and school officials to their parents and everybody involved in student activities.”
In the House, Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, expressed concern about GOP legislation driving tax dollars away from public schools to private schools. Legislation would apply federal funding to mental health and safety programs, authorize $500 bonuses to teachers and to cut state aid to districts by $5,000 for each student taught online. A “school choice” plan would reward donors of scholarships to private schools with up to $8,000 per student per year in state tax credits.
Smith: “A lot of this got rolled into what the House minority leader described as a Frankenstein bill.”
Rep. Steve Huebert, the Valley Center Republican, made a case for House Bill 2039. He said his bill would require students at accredited public, private and parochial high schools pass a civics test to graduate. It would be 20 multiple choice questions from the exam administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The House passed it 69-54.
Janovy: “Nobody can say that America doesn’t need help with civics at this point. You know, even people who were opponents of his bill applauded his intentions. And, from where I’m sitting and watching all this, it’s the adults that don’t even really care about civics.”
Elsewhere in the Capitol, legislators weighed merits of House Bill 2184 legalizing medicinal use of marijuana. The latest Kansas Speaks survey by Fort Hays State University indicated two-thirds of Kansans support legalization.
Taborda: “We would have everything from oils, tinctures, edibles, plant material. But something that is important to note is that smoking or vaping would be prohibited under the act, which I think is a little bit unusual.”
Janovy: “It’s a great example of how Kansas is slow to change on public policy. If Kansas was really sort of, you know, brave enough to have the conversation or to have citizen initiatives, you would see legalized recreational marijuana in Kansas.”
A priority of Republicans has been to elevate debate about Kelly’s pandemic leadership at the Kansas Department of Labor. Delivery of unemployment benefits has been a black hole in Kansas. The department was understaffed to deal with a pandemic that threw thousands out of work. The federal government poured money into Kansas and created new programs the state’s old IT system couldn’t handle. In Kansas and elsewhere, unemployment fraud mushroomed. Estimates are Kansas paid out $290 million to $600 million in bogus claims.
In response, GOP legislators have launched a bid to dial back longevity of unemployment benefits. The House sent the Senate a bill that also reduced the penalty for unemployment fraud from a five-year ban to a two-year exclusion.
Janovy: “Right now, under COVID … you can collect unemployment for 26 weeks. So, this unemployment bill would tie the number of weeks that you can collect unemployment to the actual unemployment rate in the country. If the unemployment rate in the country is 5%, you can only collect unemployment for 16 weeks. If the unemployment rate is between 5% and 6%, you can get 20 weeks. Or, if it’s 6%, you can get 26 weeks. Tying the number of weeks you can collect unemployment to the unemployment rate is sort of this false math. Folks are gonna be so eager to fix all of the big problems in the state’s unemployment system, that this restriction on how long you can collect unemployment is probably going to get through without a lot of attention.”
The Legislature continued to deal with fallout from decisions by then-Gov. Sam Brownback to restrict access to anti-poverty financial support. The state’s safety net was altered to withhold food, child support and cash aid from poor Kansans. One result was a record number of Kansas children in foster care.
Smith: “The foster care system has been this kind of sadness factory. Really going back, if you talk to a lot of the advocates for children, they go back to the passage of the HOPE Act during the Brownback years, which took away a lot of the access to the safety net programs in the state, meaning getting food assistance and child support. And what you hear over and over again, is that we confuse poverty for neglect in the state.”
The House and Senate have sought criminal justice reform since realizing get-tough-on-crime laws were filling jails and prisons with people guilty of nonviolent drug offenses. There is growing interest in specialty courts that concentrate on veterans, substance abuse or mental health issues. In addition, alternatives to incarceration that incorporate heightened community restrictions could advance.
Taborda: “It has a very, very good success rate. And, it isn’t for the faint of heart. This isn’t a get out of free card that they’re presenting these people. They really do have to put in the work there.”
What about taxes?
The House and Senate shared interest in pressuring municipal governments to restrain property taxes. Under these latest variants, counties would be required to inform taxpayers about proposed adjustments in property valuations and mill levies. The idea is to give taxpayers an opportunity to challenge increases at public hearings.
Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, proposed reduction in the state’s 20-mill tax levy on property. He wanted state government to adhere to notions of fiscal responsibility the Legislature planned to thrust on local government. His idea of lowering the levy to 19 mills next year and 18 mills the year was blocked on procedural grounds.
The Senate also passed a bill renewing the push for tax breaks beneficial to large businesses and wealthy individuals that was previously vetoed by Kelly. There hasn’t been movement on the sales tax front, including the state’s unrivaled 6.5% rate on food.
Janovy: “There’s a lot of people who remember the Brownback years and the Brownback tax experiment, and it did not turn out well for Kansas. That’s not very good public policy. There’s a lot of people who remember the pain of those years and I think are astounded that we’re considering doing the same thing again.”