Senators gather for a group photo ahead of the start of the 2022 legislative session Monday at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The 2022 Legislature convened Monday in Topeka to begin policymaking with election-year politics looming large and coronavirus-related legislation, as well as redistricting, front and center over the coming months.
The 125 representatives and 40 senators will begin committee deliberations this week, hoping to pass legislation Gov. Laura Kelly sees fit to sign. As Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, expect debate on tightening election laws and renewed efforts to undercut vaccine mandates.
Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and chairwoman of the House Children and Seniors Committee, said there is a great deal of excitement around working with a budget surplus, something past legislatures often lacked.
“Figuring out where the gaps are in Kansas and where, what and how we can best use that money is a good problem to have,” Concannon said. “I’m looking forward to coming here and passing the budget … and we’ve got some child welfare issues that I’m interested in that I’ve kind of focused on this session.”
State economists projected in November a $2.9 billion surplus, which could grow if tax revenues exceed expectations. Last week, the governor announced Kansas exceeded December estimates for total tax collections by $64.5 million.
In 2021, legislators introduced more than 700 bills and passed more than 100 of them after debate in both chambers and approval from the governor. Leftover legislation, like medical marijuana, will carry over to this year.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the committee she oversees will spend the first few weeks cleaning up past legislation and working on unfinished business from 2021.
“We’re going to look at the numbers as far as what’s happening with enrollment in K-12, as well as the college level,” Baumgardner said. “Next week, my hope is that we’ll have the trailer bill for the Promise Act, to resolve some issues that came up separately, and we’ll start working through the other bills, some of the issues that came up in the interim education meetings and some bills that are left over from last year.”
The Kansas Promise Scholarship Act, which passed the Senate and House, would provide post-secondary educational scholarships for certain two-year associate degrees and technical education programs.
Another looming education issue is critical race theory, even though state and local school boards have repeatedly told legislators that no K-12 school in the state teaches the college-level academic body of work. Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said she was looking forward to finally debating the issue.
Faust-Goudeau also pointed to other issues demanding immediate attention from legislators.
“People are still struggling to pay their bills due to loss of jobs with COVID, and I’m especially excited to be back here so we can get a better handle on unemployment issues because I’m still getting phone calls and email and still helping those get in touch with the Department of Labor regarding that issue,” Faust-Goudeau said.
Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, was less optimistic about the passage of potential legislation that benefits all Kansans but hoped lawmakers could come together on issues like criminal justice reform and efforts to get rid of the food sales tax. He expressed concern with the potential for partisan politics in the redistricting process.
“I think (the legislative session) is going to be a train wreck, and I think it’s going to be highly partisan,” Highberger said. “I want (Kansans) to ask our legislators to be pragmatic rather than ideological and to try to do what’s right, whether it fits your exact preconceptions or not.”
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