Legislators dazzle with thoughts on pot, COVID-19, taxes and work ethic

Kansas Reflector podcast explores jewels of Capitol commentary

By: - May 10, 2021 8:29 am
Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican, said economic and medical arguments supporting legalization of medical use of marijuana work just as well to support the cause of Medicaid expansion. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican, said economic and medical arguments supporting legalization of medical use of marijuana work just as well to support the cause of Medicaid expansion. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Legislature avoided a repeat of an early shutdown in the 2020 session due to COVID-19 and welcomed return in 2021 of the four-month window of opportunity to share political wisdom on hundreds of public policy issues.

Blended among routine parliamentary shuffling required to move bills from introduction to a governor’s signature was a steady flow of commentary from House and Senate members willing to grab a hot microphone. In tribute to crossing another hurdle Saturday toward close of the 2021 session, the Kansas Reflector staff mined four gems of oratory from last week’s debates.

One considered how persuasive arguments for passing a House bill legalizing medical marijuana could be repurposed to support expansion of eligibility for Medicaid. Another examined a mathematical pitch in the Senate for overriding Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a tax bill that might have been more theoretical than empirical.

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, Kansas, questioned wisdom of a Senate amendment forbidding KDHE from expanding a list of required child vaccinations, including a possible COVID-19 shot. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, said GOP senators eager to send hundreds of millions in compensation to businesses hurt by city, county and state mandates should appreciate the orders were issued as COVID-19 cast a pall of death across the state before release of vaccines. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

There was a reminder for skeptics of Kansas government’s temporary restraint of businesses during the pandemic that more than 5,000 infected Kansans have died. And, the list featured a lawmaker’s concern relief funding served to fuel a dangerous culture of dependency.

Reporter Noah Taborda was intrigued by remarks of Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin, during House debate on a bill authorizing medical use of marijuana in Kansas. Senate Bill 158 created a framework for legalized cannabis for people with certain qualified conditions, including chronic pain and a series of specific diseases.

Jennings said arguments for medical marijuana legalization could be borrowed to support expansion of Medicaid to improve preventative health care for lower-income Kansans. The Legislature has blocked expansion since President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

“Everyone else is doing it,” Jennings said of the dual-issue argument. “Broad public support.”

So far, he said, 39 states have expanded Medicaid and 36 have some form of legal marijuana use. A statewide survey by Fort Hays State University showed 66.9% of Kansans backed recreational sale of marijuana and 63.5% were ready to broaden availability of health care under Medicaid.

“It will bring revenue into the state,” Jennings said. “When you bring revenue into the state and you start circulating those dollars around, whether it is from medical marijuana or Medicaid expansion, it’s good for the economy.”

Opinion editor C.J. Janovy said a reminder from Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, that politicians ought to temper criticism of actions taken by state, county and city officials to slow the spread of COVID-19. In 2020 when mandates were most prominent, infection expanded and there was no vaccine to counter the virus.

Pettey spoke up during debate on Senate Bill 286, which was eventually overhauled before passed. It set up a structure to earmark hundreds of millions of dollars sent by Congress to city, county and state officials to compensate businesses that suffered from public health orders. She tried and failed to remove cities and counties from the bill and to transfer powers that would be invested in the attorney general over to the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Here’s what Pettey said:

“It’s as if we didn’t all live through COVID-19. As if we all weren’t impacted at the federal, state, city, county, home level. As if some in this body didn’t lose their loved ones. These decisions were made because we had a life-threatening disease. We can’t now be armchair quarterbacks and look back and say, ‘Oh, this shouldn’t have happened.’ I think it’s so disingenuous when we do that.”

Sen. Jeff Longbine, Emporia Republican, agrued Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of tax reform in Senate Bill 50 should be overridden because the measure finally delivered income-tax relief to average middle-income Kansans. Kelly’s veto was reversed. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Janovy said the sentiment shared by Pettey summed up the year of COVID-19 as people chose to look at the pandemic through political lenses.

“At first, for just a very short time, there was a sense that this was something huge and dangerous that required a unified response,” Janovy said. “But then, almost immediately, it devolved into totally different worlds based on politics.”

Editor in chief Sherman Smith was drawn to remarks by Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican eager for the House and Senate to override Kelly on Senate Bill 50. It was a tax reform measure that allowed individuals to take the standard deduction on federal income taxes and itemize deductions on state income tax forms.

Up until now, Kansas taxpayers couldn’t decouple their approach on deductions. While Longbine argued the bill was about the average middle-class taxpayer, the decoupling would be useful to a mere 7% of Kansans. Other portions of the bill slashed taxes for multi-national corporations, including companies that hid profits overseas to avoid taxation in the United States.

Here is Longbine’s hypothetical example in support of the bill:

“The reality of it is this bill corrects a huge injustice to our middle-income taxpayers. I know the bill has been characterized as a tax break for the rich. It couldn’t be further from the truth. This is something that will restore tax fairness to our W-2 wage earners.

“If you take an average family, I don’t care, take a couple of school teachers. Let’s say they have $12,000 in mortgage expenses throughout the year, $5,000 in property tax, they’ve given a couple thousand dollars away in charitable contributions to their church and other charities. And, oh by the way, they had a baby that year and spent $2,000 on medical expenses. That’s $19,000 that under current law they cannot deduct.”

Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, said he was concerned billions of dollars in federal relief funding flowing into Kansas threatened to strengthen a culture of dependency among individuals and corporations. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Smith said it was difficult to imagine the average family in Kansas headed by two educators could write off $12,000 in mortgage interest annually.

“You would have to owe at least $300,000 on your home to even reach that level,” Smith said. “It would be a unique pair of school teachers who own a $350,000 house, have a baby and still have enough money left over to give $2,000 to charity.”

Another interesting speech was delivered by Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Republican from Hiawatha worried about the mindset of people with billions of dollars delivered to individuals and businesses in Kansas. He shared despair that the federal government was borrowing far too much money in response to the “so-called” health crisis of COVID-19.

Here’s what he said about the culture of dependency:

“Healthy people were told not to work,” Pyle said. “Certain businesses forced to shut down and close their doors. We can sit here and talk about corporate welfare. We can talk about personal welfare. We can talk about growing government.

“Look at where we’re going. Dependency? I mean, are all these entities being encouraged, whether they’re workers, employees, those laid off, businesses that were closed — are they all going to be sitting here a year from now after all these monies are disbursed and say, ‘Gee, I hope another COVID comes along.’? What are we encouraging?”

“We shouldn’t be encouraging a lifestyle that says, ‘No, give me more.’ Unless they’re willing to work. Work is a good thing.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.