Opinion

Who asked for this disastrous Statehouse session? Certainly not Kansas voters.

April 4, 2022 3:33 am
The dome of the Kansas Statehouse soars above those working in the building. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

The dome of the Kansas Statehouse soars above those working in and visiting the building. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

This was the Kansas Legislature session that no one wanted.

Time and again, leaders in the House and Senate forced hearings and votes on measures with little — or zero — public support. Time and again, those same leaders prevented hearings and votes on policies supported by vast majorities of their constituents. Advocates have complained this session that the Legislature is broken, but it’s actually worse than that. The Statehouse works perfectly well, just not for Kansas voters.

With both chambers on break for three weeks, Kansans should pay close attention to what lawmakers did in our names. Those who voted time and again for bills without public support should explain themselves.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt pushed a bill targeting Wyandotte County’s Safe and Welcoming City Act, which provides municipal ID cards and limits law enforcement cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It was rushed through committee with less than a day’s notice, and those opposed weren’t able to testify.

In this case, Kansas voters in Wyandotte County made their wishes perfectly clear by electing a government that pursued this path. They were steamrolled by Schmidt’s gubernatorial ambitions.

 

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he was disappointed with the bipartisan opposition leading to rejection of proposed constitutional amendments limiting state tax increases and altering selection of justices to the Kansas Supreme Court. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, muscled through a U.S. congressional redistricting map that’s now being challenged in court. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Misshapen maps and more

Senate President Ty Masterson, meanwhile, wanted a new congressional district map that targeted U.S. Rep Sharice Davids and extended a middle finger to left-leaning Lawrence. Never mind extensive testimony from the public that explicitly called for keeping communities together. 

Masterson ignored the public to pursue his party’s political ends.

Kansan after Kansan testified against the Senate’s unnecessary and clearly discriminatory bill barring transgender students from women’s sports. Sen. Renee Erickson and Masterson refused to even listen to a fellow legislator in pushing the bill across the finish line.

Don’t worry, it gets worse. The only verbal testimony in support of a bill restricting access to food and medical assistance came from an out-of-state lobbying group. Not a single Kansan showed up to support the bill, but a watered-down version of the legislation still made it through. Disgust at poor people apparently trumps all.

The train this session was mainly driven by Republicans. But Gov. Laura Kelly got in on the trust-us-we-know-best action early, pushing a gargantuan tax break for a mystery business that might come to Kansas and build a plant. What was the business? Where would it go? That was all a secret. No one in the general public ever knew enough to support the package or not.

And on the last regularly scheduled day of the session, lawmakers tried to oust the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, unhappy with an investigation and resulting subpoenas. Not one Kansas voter demanded this change, but lawmakers concerned about their political futures were no doubt extremely interested.

That’s only the beginning. I never saw the groundswell of public support for cramming 29 pieces of tax legislation into a single “shell” bill, no-bid contract extensions for managed care organizations, or a nonsensical “parents’ bill of rights.” We got them anyway.

 

Gov. Laura Kelly has called for eliminating the state sales tax on food. Lawmakers haven’t done so yet. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

What Kansas voters want

What do residents actually want from their state government?

Kansans across the ideological spectrum have long demanded a lower sales tax on food. Gov Laura Kelly ran on cutting the tax in 2018 and made it a centerpiece proposal this year. But the House tax committee refused to eliminate the tax altogether, instead passing a half-hearted incremental proposal meant to deny the governor a political win.

That compromise didn’t even clear both chambers before Friday’s session ended. Talk about priorities.

Polling has consistently shown that broad swaths of Kansans support both expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana — medically or otherwise. People know what they want, and they want widely available health care and cannabis. Lawmakers remain unswayed. Medicaid expansion hasn’t been seriously considered this year, while a half-baked (so to speak) pot proposal remains tied up in the Senate.

If leaders and enough legislators wanted these proposals to be law, they would be. Republicans have supermajorities in both houses and are easily able to override vetoes if necessary, although one suspects the governor would be happy to see these popular proposals become a reality.

The opposite is also true. The fact that these proposals haven’t become law means that legislators accept — perhaps even welcome — the current state of affairs.

They support a system that ignores the will of the people.

 

House Speaker Ron Ryckman answers questions from Kansas Reflector senior reporter Tim Carpenter and Kansas City Star reporter Katie Bernard on Feb. 23, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Great power, great responsibility 

We have granted the men and women of the Kansas Legislature enormous power: They represent us and set laws for everyone in the state of Kansas. After the first part of the 2022 session, anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear understands the giant disconnect between us and those who purport to govern this great state.

The process continues. The governor likely will veto a broad swath of these bad bills. Some of the most misguided proposals will meet their end. Some, unfortunately, will make it through.

Solutions to this system and its twisted incentives won’t come easily. Lawmakers earn financing and support from powerful out of state groups for voting against the interests of their constituents. Lobbyists paid for by those same groups track votes, buy dinners and twist arms. Leaders reward those who vote the right way and punish those who don’t.

Kansas voters must watch and learn. Journalists must recount the backroom deals and shortcuts taken. Senators and representatives must — whatever the cost — learn to stand up for everyone in their communities.

If we can’t manage this, we can’t manage a representative democracy. We’ll be doomed for endless sessions that no one wants.


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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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