Kansas Democrats, advocates offer alternate issues for special session focused on COVID-19 mandates

By: - November 29, 2021 9:34 am

A chorus of boos and jeers came down from the House gallery, as the Rep. Boog Highberger suggested the Legislature’s focus was misplaced. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — Democratic legislators criticized the Kansas special legislative session last week, calling the measures considered a waste of taxpayer money, and pointing to issues like the food sales tax and the criminal justice system in need of a closer look.

Lawmakers gathered at the Capitol building to consider, and ultimately approve, legislation that provides for moral, religious and medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements and ensures unemployment compensation for anyone fired because of their vaccine status. Any business that refuses to accept an exemption faces up to $50,000 in fines.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed the bill into law after both the House and Senate approved the measure Monday.

Democratic legislators opposing the legislation argued the issue of federal vaccine mandates would be decided by the courts making taking the issue up pointless. Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, invited jeers from backers of the bill when he expressed disappointment the House was even considering this measure.

“Wasting taxpayers’ money and ignoring other real crises in the state like the crisis in our prison system,” Highberger said. “We’ve got a crisis of staffing in our prison system. So, are we talking about that today? No, we’re talking about something that we’re ultimately not going to have any ability to deal with.”

Many in the gallery who had gathered following an anti-vaccination mandate rally held before the special session booed and coughed at legislators who opposed the law. After repeatedly being asked to quiet down, those in the gallery raised their hands in silent protest.

“We appreciate folks being in our gallery, but we do request that you remain silent and do not yell or react,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe. “To continue to be here, be respectful of our chamber and our speaker.”

Off the floor, more Democrats raised issues they thought ought to be considered instead of the anti-mandate law. Leavenworth Sen. Jeff Pittman pointed to a provision in the bill offering state unemployment benefits to those fired for refusing to be immunized.

He said instead of focusing on such a narrow scope, legislators should look at expanding benefits to others in need.

“We’re only talking about COVID-19, but we could have been talking about collective bargaining, about employee rights, about maternity and paternity. All kinds of things why people get fired in this Right to Work state.”

Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, D-Lenexa, said focusing on reducing or eliminating the state food sales tax, a plan backed by Republican and Democratic leaders alike, would serve the state better.

Last month, Gov. Laura Kelly announced proposed legislation she would file next session to “axe” the food sales tax, joining attorney general Derek Schmidt in calling for reduction or elimination of the tax.

Kelly’s proposed exemption would save a family of four an estimated $500 annually on their grocery bill and cost the state an estimated $450 million in lost revenue.

“We call everybody back and we’re not getting dollars back into the pocket of families,” Hoye said. “I feel like that was a waste of time that we’ve been just sitting around here all day. We could have actually done something that would have impacted families, especially on the holidays.”

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said lawmakers’ focus on condemning the vaccine mandate ran counter to public health needs. Instead, they should focus on encouraging their constituents to follow vaccine and social distancing recommendations, he said.

“These Tea Party notions of individual freedom devoid of any individual responsibility, I don’t think that that’s what this country is about,” Witt said. “It’s sad to see that otherwise, what I would hope are well-meaning people, descend into such madness.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.