Opinion

Statehouse scraps: Transparency fail, LaTurner threat trial, KanCare expansion prospects

January 20, 2023 5:00 pm

A statue of Abraham Lincoln rests outside the Statehouse before Gov. Laura Kelly's inauguration this month. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The second week of the Kansas Legislature has barreled through Topeka like a steam locomotive fueled with plutonium.

Along with the usual committee hearings and backroom dealmaking, political news across Kansas kept the pace with GOP organizational hijinks and the bizarre trial of a man who threatened U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner. At the Statehouse, lawmakers kept obscuring their business from the prying eyes of reporters and the public. As always, people said ridiculous things.

Highs and lows from this turbocharged week follow.

 

Prairie chicken snub

To paraphrase the unforgettable Clara Peller, where’s the text?

At a meeting of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, took legislative aim at the lesser prairie chicken. He opposes naming the much-maligned bird a threatened species and plans a resolution to that effect, according to Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro.

The only problem? The resolution hadn’t actually been introduced. Mipro managed to snag a paper handout with text at the committee meeting, but there’s no record of the proposal on the official legislative website. At the time, Kerschen said the full Senate planned to consider the resolution Thursday. But that day came and went without a vote — and without the bill showing up anywhere.

Did Senate leadership plan to pull a fast one on Kansans by introducing legislation that no member of the public could actually read and shoving it through the chamber? It sure looks like it.

Sen. Dan Kerschen appears at a committee hearing
Sen. Dan Kerschen, explaining his disapproval of federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken, says farmers need to be considered. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

 

LaTurner trial

A bizarre trial ended in the conviction of Lawrence man Chase Neill, 32, on Thursday. The Associated Press’ John Hanna reports that Neill was accused of threatening U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner. He testified “that he was a messenger from God and he passed along a message from God threatening LaTurner for ignoring concerns about sorcery, wizards, extraterrestrials and a war for people’s souls.”

On Wednesday, Neill even acted as his own lawyer and cross-examined LaTurner.

Via Twitter, Hanna noted that the man claimed to have been inspired by a May 13, 2022, Kansas Reflector story about vetoes of public health, Medicaid and election legislation. The story includes this quote from former Rep. Tatum Lee’s Facebook page: “The war is real you all. We are fighting for the soul of our nation.”

U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, a Republican being challenged by Democrat Patrick Schmidt, said he would fulfill a pledge to participate in two general election debates, including a public television debate Thursday in Topeka. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner and his family faced threats from a Lawrence man. They were both in court this week. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

 

Where are the sponsors?

Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith pointed out to me this week that most legislation introduced this year in the Kansas House and Senate doesn’t list sponsors. That’s within the rules but makes it difficult for reporters and the general public to understand who’s behind what bills.

I decided to crunch the numbers. As of Friday afternoon, 201 bills had been introduced in both chambers of the Legislature. Of those, only 50 had named sponsors. Others carry the name of their originating committee. Still others bear no designation whatsoever. All this means that fewer than a quarter of this session’s bills — 24.9% — can be traced to any specific, responsible individual.

For a government that has struggled so long and often with transparency, I can’t say I’m surprised. But it’s disappointing.

Kansas Statehouse
The Kansas Statehouse dome soars in front of a bright blue sky earlier this month. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

KanCare signals

We know that Kansans and the governor support Medicaid expansion. We know it would be good for residents and hospitals across the state. We also know that moderate Republicans and Democrats haven’t managed to push it across the finish line after years of efforts. This week, Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Jason Tidd dropped a hint on what this session holds.

“Medicaid expansion is a nonstarter,” Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, told him after a budget hearing. “So that’s going to be probably taken out of the governor’s budget.”

Waymaster happens to be chairman of the House budget committee, so his words carry ominous weight.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, addresses reporters after a meeting of the State Finance Council on Wednesday in Topeka. Lawmakers approved a secret deal, announced later Wednesday, to land Panasonic's vehicle battery plant. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, addresses reporters after a meeting of the State Finance Council in Topeka over the summer. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Strange bedfellows

A genuinely popular bill with bipartisan appeal, SB 29 would create an “exemption for sales of school supplies, personal computers and clothing during an annual sales tax holiday.” With billions of dollars in surplus, legislators want to both cut taxes and appeal to middle-class voters. This proposal hits the sweetest of sweet spots.

As reported by Mipro, the sponsors include Sens. Virgil Peck, R-Havana; Elaine Bowers, R-Concordia; J.R. Claeys, R-Salina; John Doll, R-Garden City; Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita; and Mike Petersen, R-Wichita. (Doll has also been a registered independent.) Rest assured: This collected of lawmakers runs the gamut of ideology and legislative approach.

With Kelly proposing just such a tax break in December, everyone appears to be on the same page here. Bet on some version of this bill becoming law.

Sen. Caryn Tyson said implementing a sales tax holiday for school supplies would incentivize Kansas parents to shop in the state. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Caryn Tyson said implementing a sales tax holiday for school supplies would encourage Kansas parents to shop in the state. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

 

Grand Old Party

For the past two weeks I’ve written columns about how Republican leaders in Topeka have turned their backs on the party’s traditional values. For more evidence of decline, look no further than the GOP’s 1st Congressional District biannual organizational meeting last weekend. According to the Sunflower State Journal’s Brad Cooper, the Republicans in Hutchinson voted to censure U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran — Jerry Moran! — for being insufficiently Looney Tunes.

What did he do to incur the party’s wrath? He voted for a $1.7 billion government spending bill. The package included millions of dollars for worthy projects in Kansas and kept the government running. But local Republican organizations apparently no longer care about good government, or Moran’s conservative record.

At the same meeting, Republicans also voted to censure former GOP Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves for their support of Democrat Kelly’s reelection bid, according to tweets from Kris Kobach spokeswoman Danedri Herbert.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said opening of a new laboratory and office building in the Innovation Park at University of Kansas will deliver return on public and private investment. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, faced censure from 1st Congressional District Republicans. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

Fentanyl follies

On Tuesday, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeffrey Easter warned lawmakers about the spread of fentanyl in Kansas.

“We have found fentanyl in marijuana, we found fentanyl in cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, all of those other drugs, we’re finding fentanyl in. It’s being laced in everything,” Easter said, according to a story from Mipro.

Sure sounds like it would be useful to have some way to detect if this deadly substance was in street drugs!

Oh, wait. A May 2, 2022, Kansas Reflector story relates how Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, and fellow Republicans blocked a provision that would legalize fentanyl test strips. That is, they stopped a proposal that would have addressed Easter’s concerns directly.

“The best warning to figure out whether your drug might have fentanyl in it is, you know, don’t buy the illegal drugs,” Warren said, winning a place in the Least-Compassionate Legislator Hall of Fame.

We all know how well prohibition works, don’t we?

Law enforcement officials warned lawmakers about the spread of fentanyl at a hearing this week. (Getty Images)

 

Opinion updates

We’re making a couple of opinion section changes. Those who don’t care about the minutiae of Kansas Reflector columns can head elsewhere, but here’s the rundown for those who are curious.

The introductory text we run on most submitted columns will be removed. It served its purpose when we were a new voice in Kansas journalism, but folks know who we are by this point. We will still include a brief line about the columnist and ways to submit your own work at the end of pieces.

You can also look forward to these weekly roundups of legislative odds and ends every Friday or Saturday. After doing one on Monday and then following up with this, it seems useful to have a regular place for shards of news that don’t turn into separate stories — or stray observations that don’t spawn full columns.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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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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