Governor, Legislature prepare for political clash on vetoes, session-ending bills

Politics of 2022 election cycle influences Capitol calculus

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, House Speaker Ron Ryckman and House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, left to right, return to Topeka on Monday to grapple with Gov. Laura Kelly's vetoes and a series of unfinished bills. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, House Speaker Ron Ryckman and House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, left to right, return to Topeka on Monday to grapple with Gov. Laura Kelly's vetoes and a series of unfinished bills. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature covered Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk with dozens of bills and the Democratic chief executive responded by hitting return to sender on eight of those measures and doing the same with a collection of line-item budget vetoes.

She balked at controversial bills legalizing the carrying of concealed handguns by teenagers, adopting a license plate honoring a slave trader and banning transgender girls and women from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. She drop kicked a bill that was lit up like a Christmas tree with tax breaks.

Sen. Rick Wilborn, a McPherson Republican, said overriding vetoes issued by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly would be more difficult that some GOP lawmakers would like. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Rick Wilborn, McPherson Republican, said overriding vetoes by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly would be more difficult that some GOP lawmakers would like. Kelly vetoed eight bills and parts of a budget bill. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

House and Senate Republican leaders said they couldn’t wait to return Monday for the traditional veto session, which hasn’t offered the GOP this many veto targets in at least 15 years.

“We’re going to put this governor back in the box,” said Ottawa Rep. Blaine Finch, part of the House’s GOP leadership team and a potential candidate for attorney general.

It’s not difficult to find Republicans excited about attempting to take the state’s Democratic governor down a notch during these veto showdowns. The Legislature’s hunt for two-thirds majorities necessary to overturn her vetoes has shaped up to be as much about advancing a vision of government as influencing outcome of the 2022 elections.

Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, the McPherson Republican, said overriding Kelly would be more difficult than some want to believe.

“Some, we think, we’ll have no problem whatsoever. And, of course, we will have some that will be a pretty long reach,” Wilborn said.

This final portion of the legislative session could consume a week or so because lawmakers must also complete work on a new state government budget. The first draft submitted to the governor inspired nearly 20 line-item vetoes.

In addition, legislators have an opportunity to resolve hefty disputes about a proposed 2.5% salary increase for state workers, the 20-mill property tax financing K-12 public education and legislation to compensate businesses compelled to close during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trans, taxes, guns

Not surprisingly, Kelly vetoed what’s been described by supporters of Senate Bill 55 as a key step toward preservation of fairness in high school and college athletics. It would create a law requiring that transgender girls or women participate in girls’ or women’s teams according to gender at birth.

Kelly said the measure, which mirrored reform proposed by anti-LGBTQ forces in other states, would be a “devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families.” The business community has expressed reservations about the bill because it could risk reprisal from the NCAA and large corporations concerned the legislation was discriminatory.

Independence Republican Rep. Doug Blex, second from left, said he was alarmed by Gov. Laura Kelly's veto of a bill requiring girls and women to participate in school or college sports based on their gender at birth. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Independence Republican Rep. Doug Blex, second from left, said he was alarmed by Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill requiring girls and women to participate in school or college sports based on their gender at birth. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Doug Blex, an Independence Republican, told a group of 2nd District Republicans he was befuddled by opposition to a bill aimed at transgender women.

“The bottom line, if you have a daughter or granddaughter, to think that you know you could have somebody compete against them that could cheat them out of a scholarship is just beyond the pale,” Blex said. “I never thought I’d live long enough to see the things we’re seeing in our world that’s happening.”

Kelly also vetoed Senate Bill 50, which offered business an assortment of tax breaks vetoed twice previously by the governor. It would allow Kansans to take a standard deduction on federal income taxes, but itemize on state income tax returns. It’s a change beneficial to less than 20% of Kansans. The bill would raise the standard deduction on state income taxes. Far more taxpayers could benefit from that provision.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Linn County Republican and chair of the Senate’s tax committee, said momentum for an override of this veto spiked when state analysts increased by $300 million anticipated tax revenue in the fiscal year ending in June. The tax bill might divert $100 million annually out of the state’s revenue stream.

“We need a veto override on Senate Bill 50,” she said. “We can afford it. Anybody who says we can’t, they aren’t paying attention.”

The Democratic governor slashed a veto pen across House Bill 2058, which would enable people 18 to 20 years of age to carry concealed weapons after completing a firearm safety course, a background check and paying a fee to the state. She dropped House Bill 2089 because it would mandate gun safety courses taught in grades K-5 follow curriculum offered by the National Rifle Association.

 

Flag, elections, test

Kelly likewise rejected a license plate bill that would permit people to display on vehicles a plate paying tribute to the Gadsden flag. It features a coiled snake on a yellow background with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” The flag was named for Christopher Gadsden, a merchant who built a wharf in Charleston, South Carolina, where thousands of slaves passed through when brought to America. The image has been embraced by white supremacists.

Finch, the Ottawa state representative, said the bill containing new Kansas license plates shouldn’t be derailed based on the governor’s decision to play “identity politics.” Another plate in the bundle would benefit child cancer research, he said.

displayed at a recent Republican Party meeting, will be on the Legislature's list of possible veto overrides. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly’s rejection of a license plate bill allowing creation of one honoring the yellow Gadsden flag, displayed at a merchant’s table during a Kansas Republican Party meeting, will be on the Legislature’s list of potential veto overrides. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“Look, in the Legislature you learn right away it’s a lot like being married. Nobody gets everything they want. You’ve got to give and take a little bit. There’s a little bit of compromise that goes on,” Finch said.

Kelly’s veto message left no doubt about her perspective on the Legislature’s plan to make it more difficult for Kansans to secure advance ballots and for organizations or volunteers to deliver those ballots to election offices.

She said the bill would suppress voting and was based on a false narrative of rampant election fraud. Millions of votes have been cast over the past decade in Kansas and resulted in no evidence of a significant issues with fraud, she said.

Winfield Sen. Larry Alley, who has assumed the role of interim Senate majority leader due to Sen. Gene Suellentrop vacating the position following an arrest for DUI and fleeing police while driving the wrong way on Interstate 70, said House Bill 2183 and House Bill 2332 were important for re-establishing fairness in the state’s election process.

“We will try to override her veto on that bill and hopefully get fair elections back here in Kansas,” he said. “And, make sure it’s transparent and make sure that we get the right people in there.”

The governor vetoed House Bill 2039 requiring high school students to pass a civics exam and financial literacy class before graduating. Kelly said the Kansas State Board of Education held authority to set curriculum and dismissed involvement of the House and Senate as “legislative overreach.”