Opinion

Kansas Legislature wraps up veto session, and it surprisingly wasn’t a total Dumpster fire

May 3, 2022 3:33 am

With a brilliant blue sky behind it in late January, the Kansas Statehouse looked like a place where good things just might happen. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

It could have been worse.

That’s not the kind of statement that inspires excitement and applause, or rouses one’s fellow Kansans to ecstasies of celebration. It’s still an accurate summary of the 2022 Legislature, which saw its veto session careen to a close early Friday.

At various points, chamber leaders or arch-conservative legislators proposed a passel of policy that would have wounded our state for years to come.

  • A “taxpayer bill of rights” amendment would have made setting sensible fiscal policy radically more difficult.
  • Another amendment would have limited Gov Laura Kelly’s power over state Supreme Court nominations.
  • An “ivermectin amnesty” bill pushed by Sen. Mark Steffen would have forbidden the state Board of Healing Arts from investigating doctors who prescribed ineffective treatments for COVID-19.

None of these measures made it through. Steffen tried to claim that his bill did in a bizarre letter to health care providers, but nope.

Sen. Mark Steffen listens to testimony March 8, 2022, on legislation shielding doctors from discipline for prescribing ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Mark Steffen listens to testimony March 8, 2022, on legislation shielding doctors from discipline for prescribing ivermectin for COVID-19. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Other policies came closer to becoming law but were still stopped.

  • A “parental bill of rights” would have singled out teachers as enemies of parents and their communities while allowing challenges of any material in school libraries.
  • An anti-trans bill would have forbidden transgender students from participating in girls’ sports (apparently a single student in the entire state would have been affected).
  • A new, bizarrely gerrymandered U.S. congressional map that split Wyandotte County and shoved Lawrence into the gargantuan 1st District.

Leaders couldn’t rustle up the votes in the House to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes of the first two bills. As for the map, a Wyandotte County district judge did the job.

This is why we all should appreciate having multiple branches of government. The governor provides a check on lawmakers. When even she can’t stop them, judges can step up to enforce the state constitution.

As I said, it could have been worse.

Wyandotte County District Judge Bill Klapper rules a new congressional map drawn by Kansas Republicans violates the Kansas Constitution. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Wyandotte County District Judge Bill Klapper rules a new congressional map drawn by Kansas Republicans violates the Kansas Constitution. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Lawmakers didn’t just stop bad things, either. A few pieces of actual good policy made it through.

As Kansas Reflector senior reporter Tim Carpenter reported Monday, Senate Bill 267 lengthens postpartum coverage under Medicaid from 60 days after birth — roughly two months — to 12 months. That’s key because roughly a third of births in the state are covered under KanCare, the state Medicaid program. Some 9,000 Kansan mothers are expected to benefit.

Maternal and infant health advocates have long sought that change, and Kansas families will be all the stronger for it. Everyone should take a bow for making this extension a reality.

But that’s not all. The Kansas Reflector’s Noah Taborda wrote last month that the new state budget increases “funding for mental health services in home and community-based services and behavioral crisis stabilization for Kansans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It also approves enhancements for emergency medical services, newborn screenings, cancer screenings and more.”

Sure, some of this simply means that legislators shoveled out a bit more money on easy-to-love programs. Those programs will still help real people. They will see real benefits.

In other words, it could have been worse.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, expressed frustration during the budget debate with not being able to get a hearing on legislation and then being told he shouldn’t propose policies that haven’t had a hearing. (Feb. 23, 2022, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Finally, we have the … not quite there yet policies.

Yes, the Legislature managed to finally pass a cut to the state’s ludicrously high sales tax on food. Rather than eliminating it completely, however, they passed a phased-in mess meant to deny Kelly the slightest hint of political benefit. Do better, guys.

Sure, they managed to pass a sports betting bill. Everyone knows, though, that what Kansans really want is legal cannabis, either medical or recreational. We saw some movement on the issue this session, but nothing to push a bill over the finish line.

No one objects to funneling more money into KPERS, as lawmakers decided to send more than $1 billion to the state pension fund. Was that really the best option for that money, though, given other needs in the state? (Cough, Medicaid expansion, cough.)

I’m not going to get into the bad policy, at least not now. We have weeks and weeks to go in examining that.

Who knows what might happen May 23, when everyone reconvenes for the late spring legislative hootenanny that is sine die. Maybe Steffen will finally figure out how to make hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin doses mandatory for every Kansan. Maybe Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, will figure out how to install security cameras in every public school classroom. Your guess is as good as mine!

For the moment however, for today, let’s send up a word of thanks to legislators, Kelly and the judicial branch for making sure a handful of good things happened.

It could have been worse.

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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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