Kansas politicians pander to plutocrats, but bills unraveling shared freedoms can’t be dismissed

February 6, 2023 3:33 am
Senate President Ty Masterson

Draconian bills about social issues may not be top of mind for Senate President Ty Masterson and other Kansas legislative leaders, writes Clay Wirestone. But that doesn’t mean they will necessarily protect our shared freedoms. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

For years if not decades, commentators had an easy answer to questions about radical bills in state legislatures or the ridiculous lawmakers hawking them.

These were just distractions, we would say. Pay attention to the real action: tax policy changes, handouts to the wealthy, new regulations meant to benefit big business.

That still holds true, in one sense. Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins would likely count the 2023 session a success if their breathtakingly expensive 5% flat tax passes. Bills discriminating against the LGBTQ community and transgender kids might as well evaporate as long as the filthy rich manage to grow filthier and richer.

Yes, legislators excel at this “look at one hand, not the other” trickery. But I’m no longer convinced the analysis explains what we see in Topeka — or in capitals across the United States. And I’m not sure it ever explained as much as we thought it did.

The reason can be summed up in three words: Roe v. Wade.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided last year that, despite nearly a half-century of precedent, women didn’t have the right to an abortion. A new dark age began as states across the country rushed to ban the procedure. Yes, voters voiced their fury in response, including Kansans on Aug. 2. An amendment that would have allowed for an outright ban in the Sunflower State went down hard.

But the same legislators who put that amendment on the ballot were reelected, by and large. Many other states didn’t have the opportunity to weigh in the way Kansas did. Of the states that border us, both Oklahoma and Missouri outright ban the procedure.

Freedom lost.

‘Social issues,’ which were supposed to be distractions from what really mattered, ending up mattering a great deal to women across the country. Democrats and liberals who had been patted on the head for years about overreacting saw a bona fide constitutional right erased.

– Clay Wirestone

“Social issues,” which were supposed to be distractions from what really mattered, ending up mattering a great deal to women across the country. Democrats and liberals who had been patted on the head for years about overreacting saw a bona fide constitutional right erased. Even today, it shocks me that a majority of the Supreme Court took that step.

It shocks me even more that Americans have just accepted it. Maybe they had no other choice. Beyond casting ballots, how could they really fight back? How could they step up to preserve a right that conservative extremists were determined to deny them?

As we look at the array of rights that Kansans enjoy, think of how many depend on similar precedent. Think about the right of same-sex couples to marry, or of transgender folks to work free of discrimination. Think about the right to use contraception, or to marry someone of a different race.

Families and individuals have built their lives around these rights. But we now know that extremist politicians would rather inflict harm in the name of their ideological religion than protect their constituents.

So yes, I take bills like state Sen. Mike Thompson’s fusillade against drag queen performances seriously. Yes, I take bills like Sen. Chase Blasi’s attempt to give city and county governments the power to ban abortion seriously. Yes, I take the gamut of fatuous legislation inflicting pain and suffering on Kansans who are different seriously.

I don’t have any faith that Masterson and Hawkins, when it comes down to it, have any love or respect or appreciation for persecuted groups. Yes, they may want tax cuts first and foremost, but they don’t mind paying the cost in trans kids’ lives.

None of this has to be in contradiction.

The rich and powerful will always be fine. A wealthy male Republican’s wife, daughter or mistress will always have access to abortion services. If members of a billionaire’s family happen to be gay or lesbian, cornucopian dollars protect them from societal harms. Doors to the finest schools, employers and medical care will always open wide to them, regardless of government spending on education, work or health.

They privileged have the best of both worlds. They can enjoy the bounty offered them by eager-to-please lawmakers. They need not worry about the consequences for those they love.

The rest of us face a very different situation. Journalists, columnists and everyday folks need to watch both the big legislation and the side bills, anything that might affect the rights and freedoms of everyone, because we have no guarantee of a government that will protect us.

Whether we asked for it or not, the responsibility falls to us.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas 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 serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited 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, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent 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.