Kansas legislative session promises more debate on COVID-19, critical race theory
Rep. Stephen Owens, center, and Rep. Kristey Williams, right, watch during the Nov. 22, 2021, special session as votes are recorded on legislation allowing exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine requirements. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — As Kansas lawmakers converge Monday in Topeka to work out issues with the ever-present COVID-19 illness, election law and the state’s economic wellbeing, some advocates are hopeful humanity, not political gamesmanship, can shine through in 2022.
An election year, mixed with public outcry over the handling of the pandemic, sets up a noteworthy 2022 session. Expect discussion on adopting a medical marijuana law, expanding Medicaid eligibility, critical race theory, repealing the food sales tax on groceries and more in the coming months.
On top of that, legislators will attempt to redraw Kansas House, Kansas Senate and U.S. House boundaries, a process sure to impact elections and Kansas’ political landscape over the next decade.
Leaders of Kansas Interfaith Action — a statewide multifaith advocacy organization — urged lawmakers to serve all people, not just a select few.
“I hold out hope that if we move beyond just the realms of power, the realm of politics and the limitations of political conversations, that there can be enough compassion to do things such as sustain a veto,” said pastor Robert Johnson, the lead servant of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita and a Kansas Interfaith Action board member, in an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast.
In 2021, 769 bills were introduced, and of those, 116 bills became law after approval by both chambers and the governor. A total of 601 bills from last year, including a medical marijuana proposal passed by the House, will carry over to the 2022 legislative session.
A new set of hot-button issues are rising to the top, including critical race theory.
Despite repeated pledges from state and local school board members that Kansas schools and teachers do not teach CRT, political pressure has put the issue front and center. Kansas Interfaith Action plans to oppose any legislation that restricts a comprehensive view of Kansas and American history.
Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director for Kansas Interfaith Action, said the conversation already is not comprehensive in most Kansas schools.
“What are you afraid of? You’re not really teaching it anyway,” Rieber said. “What it’s really showing is there’s a lot to be proud of, you know — not the injustice, but the overcoming of injustice, which we’ve continually done over the course of our history.”
A lack of comprehensive historical education, combined with political gamesmanship, led to the ignorance displayed in November ahead of the special session when a family opposed to COVID-19 mandates showed up wearing the Star of David, Rieber said.
“In theory, you could end up losing your job if you didn’t get vaccinated, but that’s not the same thing as being put into a cattle car,” Rieber said. “My history is not here for somebody else’s political point.”
Special session encore
Look for lawmakers to take up unfinished matters from the inflammatory special session early on, especially in light of a newly signed disaster declaration by Gov. Laura Kelly.
Possible coronavirus-related bills range from one taking away the authority of a private business to mandate employees get a COVID-19 vaccination to a proposal adding COVID-19 vaccination status to the list of prohibited forms of employment discrimination — along with race, religion, color, sex, disability, ancestry, national origin and age. A measure prohibiting any form of “vaccination passport” also has garnered some conversation.
“I think that as we look at the next session … there will be conversations about going further, and what does that look like, and how can we further protect people? How can we contemplate banning mandates?” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican who served on the special committee on government overreach, at the end of the special session in November.
A proposition from Sen. Robert Olson, R-Olathe, to shield employers from paying into the state’s unemployment trust fund if there were a spike in jobless claims did not make the final bill in the special session. In 2022, it could find new life.
David Jordan, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, insisted science and the guidance of the public health professionals should be the driving force behind legislation relating to COVID-19.
“We need to trust public health professionals, whether that’s at the local level or within state agencies, to be implementing policies that we know work like masking, vaccination, and to make sure that their efforts are not hampered by politics,” Jordan said.
Marijuana and Medicaid
Other efforts when it comes to Kansans’ health, like potentially expanding Medicaid or legalizing some form of marijuana, are already in motion. Three Kansas constitutional amendments recently proposed by House Democratic Leadership would see these issues put up to a public vote.
The amendments to the state constitution — one to expand Medicaid, one to legalize medical marijuana and one to legalize recreational marijuana — would instruct the Legislature to create these policies by July 1, 2023.
Before going to a public vote, the proposed amendments will need support from two-thirds of both chambers. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer was hopeful that despite past impasses on these issues, allowing a vote could spark more conversation with Republicans.
“Republican leadership has actively blocked it with every turn,” the Wichita Democrat said. “It’s time to start turning these things over to Kansans and letting them decide. … It asks Kansans, ‘Do you want the legislature to do this?’ If they vote yes, then the Legislature will have to comply with the will of the voters.”
If passed, the measures would go to a public vote next November. Kansas is one of 12 states yet to expand Medicaid and three states yet to have legalized marijuana in some form.
In 2021, the Kansas House passed a medical marijuana bill, but the Senate chose not to act, although it still could in 2022.
Elections and redistricting
Baseless claims of voter fraud have driven concerns of election integrity and set the stage for further debate over election law in 2022.
Last session, legislators approved a package of bills described by voting rights advocates as restrictive or unconstitutional. A series of legal actions against these measures remain ongoing.
In 2022, both the Senate and the House plan to look further into election integrity. Despite repeatedly saying Kansas elections are safe and secure, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab is pursuing more changes to the election law to combat so-called voter fraud.
Suggestions include changes to election audit processes, securing election equipment and a recommendation to purge voters who skip two elections.
“By securing voting equipment, enhancing election audits and voter roll maintenance, Kansans can have confidence that these simple changes will enhance security without causing voter confusion,” Schwab said.
An issue sure to seep into the voting law conversation is redistricting, which could drastically impact future elections. The task of redrawing state maps to serve the interests of nearly 3 million Kansans must be completed by June to provide an orderly process of candidate filings.
The Republican Party has talked openly of developing congressional districts that protect the interests of three incumbent GOP congressmen and undercut reelection prospects of the state’s lone Democrat in Washington, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. The Democratic Party has the opposite goal.
Charley Crabtree, a board member with the League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County, urged lawmakers to avoid legal and political issues.
“Democracy is served when districts are drawn with respect for fairness and the integrity of neighborhoods, when classes of voters are not targeted for suppression and when those in power practice the golden rule of politics — that is, remembering that they will not always be in power, at least not in a true democracy,” Crabtree said.
Helping hungry Kansans
While big-ticket issues will garner much of the Legislature’s attention, Johnson and Rieber are focused on ensuring the economic wellbeing of at-risk Kansans.
One point of emphasis is eliminating the state sales tax on food, something proposed by the governor and attorney general Derek Schmidt last year. Under Kelly’s proposal, estimates indicate a family of four would save $500 on their grocery bill. Kelly estimated the state’s loss of revenue to be $450 million.
“Here in the ZIP code that I’m in we’re in a food desert on top of the sales tax, so food is expensive and healthy food is rare,” Johnson said. “If we get rid of the food sales tax, that will drastically help the poorest Kansans and just be a tremendous economic boost for them.”
Johnson also is looking at the predatory practice of payday loans, an issue that garnered some conversation in legislative committees last year but never made it to the floor of either chamber. He and Rieber said the payday loan industry and lobbyists have been successful in crushing past coalitions proposing reform.
“When (people of color and poor Kansans) get in trouble and we need a loan, we need some financial resources, the only ones that are available that will loan us money, it’s predatory lending,” Johnson said. “It can feel like the world is against you.”
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