Three flickers of light in the darkness of Kansas Legislature’s insanity

February 19, 2022 3:33 am

Journalists, political junkies and masochists walk through the wicked world of the Kansas Statehouse searching for light in the darkness of insanity. So where are the strong? And who are the trusted? (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Following the Kansas Legislature sometimes feels like an activity best reserved for journalists, political junkies and masochists. Admittedly, those three groups overlap enough to form more of a single circle than a Venn diagram.

As this week closed, however, these followers glimpsed a few positive glimmers amid the inky gloom of culture war messaging bills. Don’t call it a comeback. Don’t call it a trend. Don’t raise your hopes above the bare minimum.

Even so, shards of common sense persist in the halls of the Kansas Statehouse.


Flicker one: Clay Barker, general counsel for the secretary of state

Senate Bill 445 bars the use of ballot drop boxes for elections “unless they are located inside the building of a county election office or satellite voting location,” reports the Reflector’s Noah Taborda.

Clay Barker tells members of a Senate committee that proposed legislation limiting the use of drop boxes raises too many questions. (Kansas Reflector screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

That’s not all: “An employee must continuously observe the drop box during times that it is available to the public.”

Rather than indulge the election conspiracists behind this bill, Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s office pushed back. He found himself on the same side as voting rights advocates such as Loud Light.

“If I was doing ballot harvesting, which is now illegal in Kansas, I would not go near a drop box,” said Barker while testifying against the proposal. “What we would like, if the committee wanted to move on drop boxes, is the direct authority to regulate them because right now, they are unregulated in Kansas.”

Maybe that’s a good idea, and maybe it’s not, but they aren’t the words of someone hoarding MyPillows.

I recently wrote about Schwab’s healthy willingness to stand up against election loons. He and his office deserve credit. Party identification or ideological slant must not damage nonpartisan administration of elections.


Flicker two: Zack Pistora, Sierra Club lobbyist

Those of us in the journalist-political junkie-masochist camp spend an inordinate amount of time watching testimony.

Zack Pistora, of the Sierra Club of Kansas, appears by video during a hearing on legislation to ban plastic bag bans. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Expert, passionate people stand behind a lectern during a Statehouse hearing and make the case for or against a bill. OK, a few people are less expert or passionate, and occasionally they testify via video. Regardless, we watch a lot of people share opinions about policy.

Pistora of the Sierra Club made a deep impression Thursday while testifying against a bill that bans Kansas cities and towns from banning plastic bags.

He didn’t just paint the bill as bad for the environment, which it self-evidently is. He rhetorically eviscerated it as an insult to small-c conservatism and local control of environmental policy.

“It’s a very conservative ethic where we got to be responsible and respectful of one another and not interfere with our ability to enjoy the benefits of life and self governance,” Pistora said. “Well, the single-use plastic trash is treading on the people of Kansas. It’s treading on our properties. It’s trash in our communities, our natural ecosystems, and it adds up to a deterioration of our wonderful home we call Kansas, socialized to the taxpayer.”

That’s Pistora’s superpower —sounding like a good ol’ boy while advocating progressive policy.

On the other side, as it almost always is when it comes to policy benefiting Kansans, was the odious Kansas Chamber. Good to know that deadly waste has such stalwart defenders.


Flicker three: Three brave Republican representatives

It takes guts to stand up to your party’s leadership.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins told House Republicans he is “really passionate” about adopting a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature authority to overrule decisions made at executive branch agencies. The House failed Thursday to secure the two-thirds votes needed. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Three Republicans did that Thursday, voting against a proposed constitutional amendment that would strip the governor of power to run the executive branch as he or she desires. This was a naked, fearful power grab by party leaders terrified of losing to Gov. Laura Kelly in the November election.

So please remember GOP Reps. Dave Baker, Boyd Orr and John Wheeler. All cast their votes for the separation of power and letting the governor do her job.

A reconsideration of the vote could come as soon as Monday. No doubt all three will hear pleas, threats and enticements this weekend.

They might want to exercise care. Deals are only good as long as both sides keep them. Senate President Ty Masterson proved that after meting out punishment to senators who flipped their votes to pass his redistricting map

Our state constitution should be bigger and more important than any backroom pact.


A final note

Today’s headline paraphrases the song “(What’s so Funny ’Bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” written by Nick Lowe and popularized through an iconic interpretation by Elvis Costello. I’m trying to answer, as best I can, the song’s central question: “So where are the strong? And who are the trusted?”

Have a hopeful weekend.

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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.