Democrat Kelly dangles vetoes in front of GOP legislators eager for fresh fight

Overrides of transgender sports ban, education bill of rights top agenda

By: - April 19, 2022 4:50 pm
Gov. Laura Kelly got the attention of Republican legislators by vetoing bills imposing a school sports participation ban on transgender girls or women as well as a bill imposing a parental bill of rights in terms of K-12 public education (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Laura Kelly got the attention of Republican legislators by vetoing bills imposing a school sports participation ban on transgender girls and women as well as a bill imposing a parental bill of rights for K-12 public education. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The legislative process in Kansas is a numbers game that folks conveniently boil down to the trifecta of 63, 21 and one.

This odd set of figures represents the narrowest margin in which bills can be passed in the House and Senate — 63 in the House and 21 in the Senate. The single digit is tied to a governor’s power of the pen. A few quick snaps of the wrist and a Kansas governor can veto any bill.

Legislators, of course, have recourse. When Gov. Laura Kelly vetoes a bill, as the Democrat did repeatedly in recent weeks, she can be overridden by the House and Senate. Republicans will need to corral two-thirds majorities to do so. That’s 84 of 125 votes in the House and 27 of 40 votes in the Senate.

At least two bills rejected by Kelly, probably more, will be put on the override docket. That drama will play out after legislators return Monday to Topeka. The backdrop is the 2022 campaign for governor pitting the Democratic incumbent against likely GOP nominee Derek Schmidt, the attorney general.

“Rather than listen to parents and female athletes,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, “her decision to veto the parents’ bill of rights and the fairness in women’s sports act demonstrate she is still largely controlled by the left.”

Masterson said Republican lawmakers would respond to Kelly’s veto of a statewide public school and college ban on participation by transgender girls and women in sports. The policy was a high priority of religious conservatives and part of a national movement to slow momentum of the LGBTQ rights.

Under the Kansas bill, a person designated as male at birth who transitioned to female would be forbidden from taking part in girl’s and women’s school sports.

It’s about ‘hate groups’

Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Kansas City, said the anti-trans legislation was the work of “hate groups” that don’t want to allow families to make important decisions about people different from themselves. The Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, both listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have supported transgender sports legislation and broadly sought to curtail LGBTQ rights.

“The reality is this bill is not about sports at all. It has nothing to do with sports. This is about discrimination against children,” Ruiz said.

Supporters of the bill said targeting of transgender girls, but not boys, was necessary to avoid unfair competitive advantages in sports.

“Some have mentioned to me, ‘We don’t have a problem in Kansas,'” said Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican who voted for the bill. “I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but that’s not the point.”

Humphries said the point of amending Kansas statute to disqualify transgender girls or women from school or college sports programs was to prevent a “natal male” from stealing awards, scholarships and dreams of competitors with birth certificates listing the individual as a girl at birth.

The imperative to act could be explained in the same way House staff daily check each representative’s desk drawer as “proactive protection” against security threats, she said.

“We’ve never had an incident as far as I know in the House, but we act in advance,” Humphries said. “We wear hard hats in construction zones.”

Kelly vetoed a comparable trans sports bill last year as well as this year’s model dropped into Senate Bill 160. It was sent to her on votes of 74-39 in the House and 25-13 in the Senate. Neither total meets the two-thirds threshold, and many House and Senate members have put their foot down on both sides of the partisan aisle.

Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat, said the veiled purpose of the unwarranted Kansas bill was to “bully transgender girls back into the closet. Their mental health is considered collateral damage.”

On the other hand, Rep. Tatum Lee, R-Ness City, said LGTBQ activists were angling to bully her into “feeling ashamed of how God made me or my daughter. I’m not a mere pronoun or political talking point.”

Educational rights

In another move irritating to GOP legislators, the governor vetoed Senate Bill 58. It’s the so-called educational bill of rights for parents. It applies to public schools, not private schools. The bill begins by stating the obvious: Parents direct their child’s education as well as moral or religious upbringing.

The bill of rights bill, however, also requires teachers to share with parents all curriculum materials to be used in the classroom – in advance. As always, parents can opt their kids out by requesting alternative accommodations from the teacher. The bill passed 67-46 in the House, far below the two-thirds to deflect a veto, and also affirmed district policies allowing parents to challenge books on school library shelves.

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, voted for the bill of rights because the legislation placed into state law language unequivocally declaring parents have the definitive right to direct upbringing, education and care of their children.

“To raise our children, it takes their responsible parents, not provoking our children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord,” Penn said. “Our kids do not belong to the state, ‘educrats,’ teachers’ unions or the village. Our kids belong to their parents.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, pointed to irony that backers of the bill of rights insisted parents decide how their children were educated, but the tool made available to a single complaining parent could force school libraries to remove a book from all students in the district.

Over in the Senate, which voted 23-15 for the education bill of rights, there was bipartisan dissent. Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said the legislation amounted to an assault on K-12 public school teachers. In a speech that dripped with Doll’s frustration, he cringed at the idea of conservatives growing the educational bureaucracy.

“We have way too many laws, way too many rules. We’re going after public educators. It really saddens me,” Doll said.

Other veto fodder

It may have eluded some people that Kelly also dispatched Senate Bill 161, which would have allowed unmanned electric devices to travel on streets and sidewalks to deliver consumer products.

The governor spiked a bill extending the length of time a person could maintain a low-cost health plan. It’s supposed to be merely a bridge to a more permanent plan, but marketers of the plans want a policy duration up to 36 months. These plans don’t cover pre-existing conditions, and that wasn’t good enough for a governor who supports the Affordable Care Act and has pleaded with the Legislature to expand eligibility for Medicaid to serve thousands of low-income Kansans.

Kelly vetoed a bill prohibiting cities and counties from adopting rules to forbid businesses from sending away customers with one-use plastic bags or containers that often end up blowing throughout communities. Her argument was local governments should decide for themselves.

COVID-19 liability

Another potential piece of override bait is Senate Bill 286. Kelly rejected the bill offering broader lawsuit liability protections for doctors and health providers during the pandemic. It also added to penalties for battery in an attempt to deter dangerous people from harming front-line health workers at hospitals or clinics.

Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, said he thought the liability loophole was a disservice to patients and a boon to corporations. His 78-year-old aunt was hospitalized with pneumonia during the pandemic and after several days contracted COVID-19. Her husband of 60 years was forbidden to visit her, and she fell into a coma before dying. Jacobs performed the funeral service for the aunt.

“I’m going to vote ‘no’ on this only for personal, selfish reasons,” Jacobs said. “The hospital staff was kind of negligent. I know that we heard that there could be lawsuits. We’ll pass legislation to protect the hospital and given them immunity, but what about patients’ immunities?”

Rep. Bradley Ralph, an attorney and Republican from Dodge City, said he understood objections to the legislation, but the final version trimmed scope of immunity provisions and the result was sound policy. Immunity flows to physicians who agree to treat vaccinated and unvaccinated patients.

“This protects all the doctors,” Ralph said. “There’s nothing in here that says you have to treat a special way.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.