Opinion

Kansas Statehouse spews news: Defining ‘woke agenda,’ Kelly’s COVID luck, meditation room blues

January 16, 2023 3:33 am
Kansas Statehouse

The Kansas Statehouse opened its doors for the first day of the new session on Jan. 9. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Week one of the Kansas legislative session came and went, and so did the stories. If you followed along with Kansas Reflector, you glimpsed dozens speeding by, with all the latest about Gov. Laura Kelly, GOP legislators and advocacy groups gearing up for a grueling gauntlet.

Covering the Statehouse can be like drinking from a firehose. So here’s a few neglected drips and drops from that week that caught my eye.

 

Here then gone

Kelly had a particularly peculiar week, with Monday’s inaugural pomp and circumstance transitioning into a positive COVID-19 test on Tuesday. The governor isolated herself immediately after, pushing the State of the State speech to Jan. 24. Two days later, though, doctors decided she didn’t have the virus after all and cleared her return to work.

I checked with the governor’s office, and Kelly was diagnosed via rapid test. While such tests can produce false negatives, their positive results are usually accurate — especially if you have symptoms. Still, false positives can happen. Follow-up checks, including the gold-standard PCR test, proved the governor was actually negative.

Kelly and staff made the best of a confusing and rapidly evolving situation. The saga shows, for better or worse, how the virus has become a part of our everyday lives.

Gov. Laura Kelly, with granddaughter Laura "Rory" Weiden in her lap, signed an executive order creating a task force to make recommendations on improving the state's system of early childhood development. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly, with granddaughter Laura “Rory” Weiden in her lap, on Tuesday signed an executive order creating a task force to make recommendations on improving the state’s system of early childhood development. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

Press banned again

Once again, Senate leadership has barred Kansas press corps from the Senate chamber floor.

The form that journalists signed this year to receive credentials included the rule. Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith followed up with Senate spokesman Mike Pirner, who clarified that reporters could briefly visit the floor to take photographs but cannot take detailed notes while doing so.

As I wrote last year, Republicans have targeted both the news media and open government. Kansans have a right to know what their elected officials say and do on the job, and banishing reporters to the upstairs gallery violates that right. Kansas Reflector reporters will still cover the Senate, talk with lawmakers and write in-depth stories. That’s the job, no matter the circumstances.

But transparency remains an enormous challenge with chamber leaders so dedicated to secrecy.

Senate spokesman Mike Pirner during the 2022 session explains to Statehouse reporters John Hanna and Martin Hawver they can’t sit at the table for reporters on the Senate floor. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

Key committee membership

The Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare listens to testimony and proposes bills to improve the health of all Kansans. At least that’s the idea.

But this year, just like last year and the year before, the committee will serve as launching pad for anti-scientific conspiracy theories. Sens. Mark Steffen and Mike Thompson retain their seats on the committee. Both have been outspoken anti-vaxxers and are sponsoring legislation that would directly harm the health of children and families. Make no mistake: Public vaccination is one of the health triumphs of the modern age. Both of these men would gladly pave the way for the return of polio and other disabling childhood diseases.

You might think that after the state Board of Healing Arts investigated Steffen, Senate President Ty Masterson might hesitate at reappointing him to the committee. The same goes for Thompson, who never lacks for embarrassing Facebook posts. You might think so, but you’d be wrong.

Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, appears after a committee hearing Wednesday at the Statehouse in Topeka regarding his proposed legislation allowing doctors like himself to prescribe drugs for off-label use to treat COVID-19. You can spot Sen. Mike Thompson in the background, to the left. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Woke agenda

Kansas GOP legislative leaders proudly united behind fighting a “woke agenda.” But what does that actually mean?

Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro decided to ask at the Republican conference’s presentation Monday. Both Masterson, R-Andover, and House Speaker Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, appeared unprepared for the question.

“Woke means the focus on identity and dividing us up into different groups and causing fractions,” Masterson said, giving it his best shot. “That’s the woke agenda. Woke has all kinds of meanings to different people. That’s what it means to me, is this focus on somebody’s individual — your innate characteristics, about somehow you’re different than everyone else.”

Hawkins didn’t even try. “You don’t know what woke ideology is?” he said dismissively. “Go and Google it.”

I would suggest that fighting an agenda you can’t even define suggests a profound lack of seriousness.

Ty Masterson and Dan Hawkins discuss GOP legislative goals during a Jan. 10, 2023 news conference. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Ty Masterson and Dan Hawkins discuss GOP legislative goals during a Jan. 10, 2023 news conference. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Budget review, response

Kelly’s budget director, Adam Proffitt, made a studious case for the governor’s spending proposal on Thursday. He ticked all the right boxes for me, a bleeding-heart budget hawk.

“We were more focused on structural balance, meaning that revenues must exceed expenditures, both this year and into the future across the horizon, ensuring that we can cover our obligations as we move forward,” he told a roomful of reporters on the second floor of the Statehouse. “So the tax proposals that are out there are sustainable.”

He parried and dodged questions like a pro for about 20 minutes, leaving me more sympathetic to Kelly’s tax cut package. I still have my doubts about the wisdom of embracing tax cuts before a likely recession, but Proffit sounded like a grownup in a building packed with caterwauling children.

Adam Proffitt, budget director for Gov. Laura Kelly, presented a new state government budget to House and Senate members Thursday that deposits $500 million in a rainy-day fund, expands Medicaid and ends the state's 4% sales tax on groceries April 1. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Adam Proffitt, budget director for Gov. Laura Kelly, presented a new state government budget to House and Senate members Thursday that deposits $500 million in a rainy-day fund, expands Medicaid and ends the state’s 4% sales tax on groceries April 1. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

 

Party switch-up

Friday afternoon news dumps continued last week. The Kansas Democratic Party sent out a 1 p.m. news release revealing that executive director Ben Meers, accused by former employees of creating a toxic work environment, had departed.

Edgar Pando, the party’s vice chair, will step up to serve as interim executive director.

“A talented attorney, trusted leader, and voice for communities across Kansas, Edgar Pando is ready to take the reins and lead the KDP in the coming months,” KDP Chair Vicki Hiatt said in a news release. She also thanked Meers for his service.

Not mentioned? The former workers who blew the whistle and prompted still-unknown internal changes at the organization.

The Kansas state Democratic Party is grappling with allegations, published in the Kansas City Star, that its executive director created a toxic work environment. (Getty Images)
The Kansas state Democratic Party last year grappled with allegations, published in the Kansas City Star, that its executive director created a toxic work environment. (Getty Images)

 

Meditation room blues

Have you stopped by the Statehouse meditation room lately?

I dropped by Jan. 9 and noticed something curious. Of the three coffee table books on display, two were about Kansas City (the one in Missouri), and one was about Kazakhstan (Borat’s homeland). None actually showed off the Sunflower State.

This sounds like a small point, I know, but surely someone can find a volume of Kansas images. Nothing produces peaceful, tranquil thoughts like pictures of the Flint Hills. Or news that the session has ended.

The Kansas Statehouse meditation room features two coffee table books about Kansas City, which is located in Missouri, and one about the country of Kazakhstan. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

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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. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 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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