Opinion

With the Legislature back in session, here are five big issues for Kansans to follow

March 1, 2022 3:33 am

The Ad Astra sculpture can be seen atop the Kansas Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Legislature has returned!

You’d be forgiven for not knowing it was gone in the first place, but the House and Senate took most of a week off after turnaround. That’s the (largely hypothetical) date when each chamber finishes work on its bills and sends the legislation to the other chamber. In reality, leaders can choose to introduce and pass bills whenever they like through a variety of parliamentary maneuvers.

You can count this as the midpoint of the session. We’ve seen hearings aplenty, one redistricting map approved, and a host of smaller bills passed. But what should you be paying attention to over the next few weeks? What will matter to Kansans?

Here are my five picks.

 

Kansas State Board of Education member Deena Horst, left, and Brittany Jones, an attorney with Kansas Family Voice, sat together despite being on opposite sides of a House and Senate debate about imposing unprecedented public disclosure laws applicable to Kansas public schools regarding student curriculum and teacher training materials. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas State Board of Education member Deena Horst, left, and Brittany Jones, an attorney with Kansas Family Voice, sat together despite being on opposite sides of a House and Senate debate about imposing unprecedented public disclosure laws applicable to Kansas public schools regarding student curriculum and teacher training materials. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Education bills

Both chambers have been working on “parents’ bill of rights” legislation, which would impose various transparency measures on schools, setting the stage for clashes over controversial library books and lesson plans. This is the logical outcome after fact-free hysteria on the right over critical race theory and diversity education.

There are a lot of moving pieces here, and the proposals are cobbled-together wish lists from national conservative organizations hoping to press their advantage in fall elections. Kansans love and stand up for their schools, though, so these bills could be contested to the bitter end.

 

The dry bed of the Arkansas River near the Santa Fe Trail crossing at Cimarron. The Ogallala aquifer groundwater levels in much of western Kansas started dropping in the 1950s as pumping increased, according to the Kansas Geological Survey. (Max McCoy)

New approach to water

Water policy doesn’t wake folks up or overly excite them. Yet the future of rural farms and communities could be at stake if we don’t tend to our water resources. 

The House Water Committee has been working on an ambitious plan to both invest more in state water management, and restructure who oversees it. 

Passage is no sure thing. “Several of Kansas’ major agricultural groups — the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas Corngrowers Association — also stood opposed to the bill,” wrote Kansas Reflector’s Allison Kite last month.

 

Once senators return March 1 from a short hiatus, Senate President Ty Masterson said the focus would be on maps and the budget, as well as advancing measures approved by their counterparts in the House. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Amendment frenzy

With an anti-abortion amendment already set for the August primary ballot, legislators have been busy on other potential additions to the Kansas Constitution. The House has passed amendments that would give the Legislature oversight of executive branch regulations and require the election of sheriffs.

Both proposals move on to the Senate, where President Ty Masterson has indicated he would like to pass some amendments of his own. He mentioned tax increases and judicial selection as the subjects. Expect a feisty debate on both topics.

 

A map produced by Republicans in the House and Senate would place Lawrence in the 1st District, which stretches to the Colorado border, and split Wyandotte County between 2nd and 3rd districts. (Submitted)

Even more maps

After plentiful wrangling, Republicans got the congressional redistricting map they wanted. They also got dual lawsuits over that map. That’s only the beginning, however. Both chambers will still need to pass maps outlining new district borders for state senators and representatives.

Keep watch for how legislative leaders dole out those districts.

Which legislators will have an easy re-election, and which will face unfamiliar constituents? This can be a way to punish lawmakers who haven’t fallen into line or high-profile members of the opposing party. The obvious prediction here: Lots of outage muttering, eventual passage of the maps, a veto from Gov. Laura Kelly and another override extravaganza.

 

Alan Conroy, executive director the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, endorsed a House bill earmarking $1 billion of the state's revenue surplus to the government employee pension system. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)
Alan Conroy, executive director the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, endorsed a House bill earmarking $1 billion of the state’s revenue surplus to the government employee pension system. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Taxes and budget

At the most basic level, Kansas collects and spends money. That’s what state governments do. Many years that causes pain and consternation, but not this time around. As I wrote last week, we have a nearly $3 billion budget surplus. That’s a lot of cash burning a giant hole in the state’s wallet. 

Legislators have examined eliminating the state sales tax on food and expanding our standard deduction. They’ve also passed a $1 billion-plus incentive package for a mystery business’ megaproject. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen a proposal to send $1 billion from the surplus to the state’s retirement fund.

How much of a surplus will be left after spending all this money? What about giving state employees a raise or making their health insurance more affordable?

 

The Kansas Statehouse stands out against a blue sky on Jan. 24, 2022.(Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Other directions

These five issues will take time and energy, but I’d fully expect to see legislators go in some other directions, too. While an anti-vaccine bill hit a wall recently, the usual suspects in the Senate and House will keep pushing dangerous proposals. Secretary of State Scott Schwab will probably have to weigh in on “Big Lie”-fueled election proposals. Sadly, someone will likely target transgender schoolkids, too.

It’s impossible to predict everything. That’s a good reason to keep following the Kansas Reflector — and staying in touch with the folks who represent you at the Statehouse.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting 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, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly 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.

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