Kansas Legislature races to finalize budget, tax cuts, parental bill of rights, trans ban

By: - April 1, 2022 10:00 pm

House Republicans exist the Old Supreme Court room following a caucus meeting Friday at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers worked Friday to finalize last-minute deals on the state budget, tax cuts, a parental bill of rights, ban on transgender athletes, and a wide range of other legislation in advance of adjourning for a three-week break.

The rush toward the finish line — complicated by revelations of an ethics investigation and accusations of “pay-to-play politics” — included an attempt to oust the state ethics commissioner and extend Medicaid contracts. Friday was the final scheduled day of the regular session, and lawmakers planned to work past midnight.

Lawmakers were still working late Friday to finalize deals on sports wagering and a reduction in the state sales tax on food.

Republicans settled on an abbreviated version of a bill of rights that guarantees parents of public school children can inspect teaching materials and opt their children out of any material that interferes with a parent’s values. The legislation also allows parents to challenge any book in a school’s library and have it removed from the school.

“Our kids do not belong to the state, to educrats, to teachers unions, or to the village,” said Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita. “Our kids belong to their parents.”

House Democrats engaged Republicans in heated debate over legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in school sports. At one point, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, appeared to challenge the men in the chamber to a fight.

“A previous speaker indicated that men were physically stronger than women,” Clayton said. “Any man who believes that is welcome to meet me outside as soon as we have our next recess, and I will prove you otherwise.”

The model legislation has been promoted by faith-based groups across the country, and struck down as unconstitutional by federal courts. Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the same proposal a year ago.

“Stop attempting to bully children so far into the closet that they are afraid to tell the rest of the world who they are,” said Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat and member of the LGBTQ community.

Democrats also raised concerns about subpoenas issued by the ethics commission as Republicans pursued a rule change that would require the ethics commissioner to be a licensed attorney, effectively disqualifying current executive director Mark Skoglund from proceeding with any investigation.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said he was troubled by the “stench” of pay-to-play politics evident in the subpoenas and an attempt by Republicans to offer no-bid contract extensions to managed care organizations.

“We don’t want to live in this Capitol or in this state under the power of pay-to-play politics,” Carmichael said.

Lawmakers reached a bipartisan deal on a spending blueprint that includes a 5% raise for state employees and preserves an $895 million surplus, and they made progress on legislation to legalize in-person and online sports gambling.

Republicans planned to work out a plan without support from Democrats to gradually phase out the state’s 6.5% sales tax on food, rather than eliminate it immediately as the Democratic governor has proposed. Republicans have questioned whether the state could afford the $402 million reduction in annual state revenue after passing a massive tax incentive package for a mystery company project and planning to funnel more than a billion dollars into the state pension system.

Kelly announced that state tax collections for March exceeded estimates by $80.2 million.

“Due to the state’s sales tax on groceries and pandemic-induced inflation, Kansans continue to pay some of the highest grocery prices in the nation,” Kelly said. “These collection numbers demonstrate the ability to axe the food tax, eliminating the state’s sales tax on groceries on July 1, which provides immediate relief to all Kansans.”

A separate tax bill, which bundles 29 pieces of legislation into one, provides tax relief for property damaged by wildfires, teachers who purchase school supplies, workers who relocate to rural areas of the state, and short-line railroad infrastructure. The total package is expected to reduce state revenues by $90.9 million to $119.6 million annually over the next three years.

Lawmakers sent legislation to the governor that grants broad legal immunity to medical care providers, as well as packages of legislation dealing with privacy for nonprofit supporters, drunk flying and child abuse.

They also voted to place on the November general election ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would require counties to elect a sheriff. The proposal is a reaction to conversations in Johnson County about possibly moving to a commission-appointed sheriff.

House and Senate negotiators also reached a deal on legislation to designate the Sandhill plum as the official state fruit, and another bill banning the use of meat terms on plant-based food labels.

Meanwhile, Kelly signed into law a dozen bills that passed earlier in the session. They include legislation authorizing a memorial for Kansas Gold Star families on the Statehouse grounds.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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