Kansas politics boil, bubble and scald as Legislature basks through break

April 16, 2022 3:33 am
Visitors to the Kansas Statehouse could be glimpsed at the bottom of the rotunda on the last regular session day of the Legislature. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Visitors to the Kansas Statehouse could be glimpsed at the bottom of the rotunda on the last regular session day of the Legislature. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector readers might imagine the break between regular and veto sessions of the Legislature as a beautiful and carefree time for journalists, full of family excursions and yoga classes. Surely we cleanse our minds with hikes and rock climbing, browsing classic literature while drinking herbal tea.

Fat chance.

News from the Statehouse has scarcely slowed, and enough has piled up over the last couple of weeks that it’s time for a column sorting through the best, the worst and the weirdest of this irritating interregnum.


Gov. Laura Kelly signed two bills distinguished by messy legislative process this week. (Jan. 27, 2022, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Governor encourages bad lawmaking

The Legislature has made an unintelligible hash out of its normal routines, passing a shell bill crammed with 29 (count them, 29) tax measures and an anti-sanctuary city bill without fully hearing from opponents.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed them both.

You might expect the former senator to pay a bit more attention to how the sausage was made and call out legislative leaders for running roughshod over their own rules. Instead she kept her eyes fixed on this November’s elections, even taking credit for the massive tax bundle.

Republicans had no reason to take the path they chose. They enjoy supermajorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives. They can pass whatever bills they desire. However, leaders prefer shortcuts at the expense of their constituents.


Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s reelection campaign highlighted a surprise endorsement this week. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Unexpected endorsement touted

Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has been fending off a primary challenge from the right. So this week he broadcast an endorsement from former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, he of the disastrous tax “experiment.”

Brownback, who also served as the United States ambassador for religious freedom, was at one point the second least-popular governor in the United States. He’s not the first person you or I might turn to for an endorsement. On the other hand, he might well have some sway with Kansas conservatives.

Given Schwab’s dogged insistence at calling out election conspiracies while representing a party that bathes in them daily, he could use some help.


Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has been targeted by the Democratic Party over the state’s lack of Medicaid expansion. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

State Democrats dog Schmidt

The Kansas Democratic Party has made some odd choices in its quest to define Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt. I get it: He’s facing off against the Democratic Kelly in a high-stakes race.

Their latest tactic, however, hits the bullseye. The party is highlighting the importance of expanding the state’s Medicaid program. On Thursday, they were in Wellington, reminding us once again that voters and many legislators support expansion. Who doesn’t? GOP leadership.

All the Democratic Party has to do is state the facts: “As Attorney General, Schmidt has continued his crusade against Medicaid expansion — and against Kansans’ ability to access health care — by blocking expansion for 150,000 Kansans, including over 470 in Sumner County.”


Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, and Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, were on opposite sides of a bill banning "sanctuary cities" in Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, and Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, were on opposite sides of a bill banning “sanctuary cities” in Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Making the implicit explicit

When I wrote about Kelly signing that anti-sanctuary city bill earlier this week, I didn’t go far enough. The column highlighted the distance between the governor and progressive advocates in the state who worked relentlessly to pass the Safe and Welcoming ordinance in Wyandotte County.

Kelly’s veto was a kick in the teeth to progressives. That’s undoubtedly true.

But it was also a hostile gesture toward the state’s Latino community, and I didn’t make that clear in the column. More than 12% of the Kansas population is Hispanic or Latino, and that community deserves a governor who listens and addresses their concerns.

I’ll admit, I thought the previous paragraph went without saying. As someone who knows many advocates in the progressive space, I focused on the tension between their work and the governor’s political expediency. But I should have made the implicit explicit and acknowledged those who will feel the worst effects of this cruel legislation.


Stickers and buttons were laid out at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at West Middle School in Lawrence on Saturday, Nov. 13. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Simmering underneath it all

We still have a pandemic winding its way through Kansas and the country. Coverage has dwindled and concerns receded, but new variants continue to bubble up.

As of April 14, the seven-day average of new cases was 151 and 8,524 Kansans had died from COVID-19. Many of us have delightedly ditched masks and rushed to resume our routines of early 2020. That’s understandable, and I’ve followed the crowd.

What’s going to happen, however, if cases spike again? Will anyone in this state show the political will to impose new public health restrictions? Will health officials have the latitude to share uncomfortable news with their fellow Kansans? Will more people in our state roll up their sleeves for vaccines?

As the wise men say, whew.

Stories keep bubbling, and veto session approaches like a balky freight train. For now, though, it’s time to return to my rock climbing and yoga. If those don’t satisfy, perhaps I’ll just take a nap.

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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.