Kansas Legislature’s final day of 2022 session may involve more than ceremonial activities

State lawmakers urge action on fentanyl, tax, automated vehicle issues

By: - May 23, 2022 10:00 am
Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, said the 2022 Legislature should revise drug paraphernalia law to legalize possession of test strips capable of identifying potentially deadly contamination with fentanyl. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, said the 2022 Legislature should revise drug paraphernalia law to legalize possession of test strips capable of identifying potentially deadly contamination with fentanyl. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — Hutchinson Rep. Jason Probst pleaded with legislative colleagues Sunday to repeal a 41-year-old state statute defining test strips as drug paraphernalia to enable Kansans to more easily test illegal drugs for presence of fentanyl that has fueled a wave of overdose deaths.

The 2022 Legislature returns to Topeka on Monday for what typically amounted to a brief ceremonial gathering to close out the annual session. There is potential, however, the Republican-led House and Senate could be interested in taking up tax or transportation legislation, which could open the door to a longer day and consideration of other issues.

In April before the Legislature took a long break, the Kansas Senate blocked a bill decriminalizing fentanyl test strips. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine. Dealers can be blend it with heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, but consumers of those drugs can’t visually discern contents of those substances.

Sen. Kelli Warren, a Leawood Republican seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general, said passage of the bill could appear as if Kansas was creating a haven for consumption of illicit drugs. She said people should take personal accountability and shouldn’t take illegal drugs.

The Kansas Department of Health Environment reported 338 overdose deaths in the state from Jan. 1, 2021, to June 30, 2021. Of that total, 149 were linked to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. The total represented a 54% increase in overdose fatalities from the same six-month period in 2020.

Probst sent correspondence to House and Senate members seeking support for consideration of House Bill 2540 that could be amended to include the test-strip provision. If legislative leaders declined to take action, he said, a related provision rescheduling medication helpful to patients with epilepsy also would be lost in 2022.

“It is unfortunate that a handful of people have decided to force us to navigate a sort of hierarchy of good, and in effect sacrifice good policy for one group to realize good policy for another group,” Probst said. “It is also, in my opinion, not the sort of representation Kansans expect or deserve. I think most Kansans could recognize and support the idea of doing two good things at once.”

He said Kansas had a surging rate of overdose deaths and most of those were due to people unknowingly consuming fentanyl.

“This is happening far too often in our state, and we have an opportunity to intervene, to take a small and simple step to save lives. Doing nothing, or waiting another year while Kansans die, feels unacceptable,” he said.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, control the debate calendar in their respective chambers.

The Senate and House could authorize votes on tax-cut legislation developed during the 2022 session but not signed by Gov. Laura Kelly. In addition, there have been pleas to amend a new state law allowing use of autonomous vehicles so the Kansas Corporation Commission, rather than the Kansas Highway Patrol, would be responsible for issuing rules and regulations for deployment of the computer-controlled vehicles.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Kansas Trial Lawyers Association and Working Kansas Alliance opposed the transportation bill, but it was endorsed by the Kansas Chamber, Koch Industries and Alliance for Automobile Innovation.

Kelly, a Democrat seeking reelection, urged the Legislature to approve during the final day of the session a bill immediately ending the state’s 6.5% sales tax on groceries. She recently signed a bill adopted by the House and Senate gradually reducing the statewide sales tax on food until eliminated in 2025.

The Legislature is expected to consider a bill implementing a $10 million state mental health hotline. Also on the agenda is a bundled tax reform bill, which includes a $50 million property tax rebate to storefront businesses closed by the state early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers also plan to entertain veto overrides of bills related to limits on the government’s response to infectious diseases, a prohibition on executive branch officials altering election rules without legislative input and a ban on renegotiating the state’s Medicaid contract until 2023.

Sen. Mike Thompson, a Johnson County Republican, said he would propose the Senate vote on a nonbinding resolution denouncing President Joe Biden’s recommended changes to health policy at the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the Legislature ought to approve Kelly’s proposal for a $250 per-person tax refund to about 1 million Kansans. He also suggested legislators suspend until Jan. 1 the state’s tax on gasoline.

“Due to a confluence of factors, gas prices are skyrocketing,” he said. “A tax holiday on gas through January 1, 2023, will provide direct relief to families during a time they need it most.”

Sawyer further proposed the Legislature adopt bills legalizing medical marijuana and prohibiting gerrymandering of political districts.

On Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court added an item to the Legislature’s to-do list. The court decided a tax case in favor of businessman Gene Bicknell, who challenged the Kansas Department of Revenue’s claim that he owed millions of dollars in state income tax on sale of a company that at one time owned the world’s most Pizza Hut franchises.

The state Supreme Court declared Bicknell was a resident of Florida, not Kansas, during the tax assessment period. It meant the state could owe Bicknell a tax refund of more than $60 million.

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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.

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