Masterson muscles gerrymandered map through Kansas Senate, at the price of school kids’ health

February 8, 2022 4:50 pm

Senate President Ty Masterson addresses Senate Republicans shortly after they voted to override the governor’s veto of a GOP-drawn congressional map. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

It took a day, and the possible reintroduction of polio and measles to Kansas schoolchildren, but Senate President Ty Masterson got the redistricting map he wanted.

On Monday evening, after a brutal multi-hour lockdown, the Senate failed to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of their egregiously gerrymandered “Ad Astra 2” map. End of story, right? Wrong. Masterson, who had forced the map through committee with his usual oily smarm, made sure to reserve the right to reconsider it Tuesday.

Then the miracles began to happen.

Notoriously anti-vaccine Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, had been one of the votes against the map, concerned about including deep-blue Lawrence in the rural 1st District. He’s a dangerous crank, but Masterson needed his vote.

So on Tuesday morning, we witnessed the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee passing out a Steffen bill that would “give doctors free range to use any drug for COVID-19 treatment and require pharmacists to fill the prescription, while removing protections for both doctors and pharmacists from civil liability if patients are harmed by the treatment,” according to reporting from Kansas Reflector’s Sherman Smith. “Lawmakers also added language from another of Steffen’s bills that would allow children to opt out of any kind of vaccine requirement at day care facilities and schools without being questioned.”

Sen. Mark Steffen listens to debate during the Tuesday hearing on his anti-vaccine legislation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The panel then jammed both bills into the “shell” of a measure already passed by the House. That means that no further hearings on the dangerous contents would be needed.

Don’t worry, though, if that sounds shameful and undemocratic. It’s just the way things work!

“For those of you listening online that are getting an impression that this is something unique in committees, it is not,” said Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican. “This is something done every session. This just happens to be on this certain bill. So I don’t want you to be misled that this is something unique.”

Sure enough, a bit before 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the full Senate reconvened and voted to reconsider the veto override. Steffen switched his vote, as did Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood, who explained she was in favor of “freedom.” The governor’s veto was quashed, and the map lives to see another day.

More ominously, though, Steffen’s bill on childhood vaccinations opens the door wide to weaken one of the most impressive public health achievements of our time. Think of once-common childhood illnesses — polio, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox — that have been all but eliminated thanks to safe and effective vaccines.

As Kansas Action for Children’s Heather Braum pointed out on Twitter, our state already has a religious exemption for childhood vaccines. This bill creates a “philosophical” exemption that could all but eliminate hard-won victories against needless childhood deaths.

One hopes the bill won’t make it through the Senate, House and collision with Gov. Laura Kelly. But hopes can wither quickly when faced with political necessity.

Masterson achieved his goal. He bent the Senate to his will.

All it took was his fellow senators’ willingness to sacrifice the health of future generations of Kansas school kids.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.