Statehouse scraps: Food tax intrigue, Florida group’s influence, informational hearings off rails

February 11, 2023 3:33 am
The Kansas Statehouse stands out against a bright blue sky dotted with wisps of cloud

The Kansas Statehouse stands out against a bright blue sky dotted with wisps of cloud this week. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

Let’s have a chat today, you and me, before starting the column. We’ve blasted through five weeks of the 2023 session of the Kansas Legislature thus far, and I’ve written enough chatty introductions to this roundup column. You and I both know you skip over this section anyway. Let’s get to the action.

As the Jerry Lee Lewis album title once promised: “All Killer, No Filler.”


Food tax cut calculation

Big news Tuesday as the House Tax Committee started looking at House Bill 2111. Among other things, the legislation would fully phase out the sales tax on groceries April 1. Gov. Laura Kelly, who campaigned hard in both 2018 and 2022 on eliminating that tax, surely watched with interest. Wouldn’t it be a shame, though, if Republicans on the committee decided to pad the bill with poison pill amendments? They could add language funding deceptive crisis pregnancy centers. They could ban transgender athletes in high school.

Kelly would then be forced to choose between delivering on a long-sought goal and signing right-wing culture war fodder into law. If you’re a Republican lawmaker, that’s exactly the kind of choice you hope to foist upon her.

Wouldn’t that just be a doggone shame?


Florida foundation links

Hey, have you noticed how the Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project keeps popping up at Statehouse hearings to argue against helping poor people? They showed up last session and this one, although at least this year they had the decency to have a local shill make the case. Fun fact about the project: It’s the lobbying arm of a group called the Foundation for Government Accountability.

And wouldn’t you know it, the FGA has close ties to Kansas conservatives. It gave Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins a Legislator of the Year award back in 2016. It hired Kim Borchers, deputy chief of staff for former Gov. Sam Brownback, as director of executive leadership development a year later.

Steve Greene stands at a microphone
Steve Greene, a Kansas-based lobbyist, appears before the House Welfare Reform Committee on behalf of the Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Follow the money

If you watch Super Bowl ads this Sunday, you will likely see a couple of flashy pro-Jesus spots from a campaign called “He gets us.” As KCUR reporters Peggy Lowe and Dan Margolies wrote Friday, an Overland Park nonprofit called The Signatry funds the campaign.

Who and what else has the nonprofit supported? The reporters note that “a small donation, $5,000, went to the Academy for Climate and Energy Analysis Inc. in Shawnee, Kansas, a climate-change-denying group whose spokesperson is former meteorologist Mike Thompson, now a Republican Kansas state senator in Johnson County.” You remember him.

Sen. Mike Thompson has introduced several pieces of legislation criticized as efforts to end renewable energy in Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Informational hearings

Over the last two weeks I’ve talked with fellow journalists and nonprofit activists at the Statehouse, and they have all told me the same thing. Lawmakers have exploited informational hearings. Usually, these sessions simply educate lawmakers on one topic or another.

This session, they have been ways for ultraconservative committee chairs to spring a surprise speaker on their committee. Those on the committee with different opinions or members of the public can’t respond in real time. That leads to fantastical headlines like this: “Physician asks Kansas lawmakers to ban racial diversity programs at medical schools, hospitals.”

Lawmakers can’t wrap their brains around it either.

“I have to admit that I’m still confused about why you’re here and why you’re making this presentation,” Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Kansas City, said at that very hearing. “What do you want from us?”

Stanley Goldfarb, a physician and founder of Do No Harm, asked the Kansas Senate to approve bills banning medical schools from involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion programs, critical race theory and race-based admissions. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)
Stanley Goldfarb, a physician and founder of Do No Harm, asked the Kansas Senate to approve bills banning medical schools from involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion programs, critical race theory and race-based admissions. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)


Mattivi on the job

Congratulations to Tony Mattivi, who was confirmed as the 13th director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation on Thursday. His extensive experience as a federal prosecutor should bolster state law enforcement.

Congratulations also to his new boss, Attorney General Kris Kobach, who hired one of his GOP primary rivals for the KBI spot. I wrote before about Kobach striking a different tone in his campaign for AG, and it appears that different tone has stuck. I understand that Kobach was a human punchline for several years, but he might still surprise us.

LATE-BREAKING NOTE: After I finished this section of the column, the Reflector posted a story about Kansas (via Kobach) joining Republican-led states in challenging the abortion pill. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, but perhaps not today.

Former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi, a Republican candidate for attorney general, defended his view that Kansas teachers with firearm training should be given the option of carrying a weapon in classrooms and schools to defend against armed attackers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi ran as a Republican for attorney general and was defeated by Kris Kobach in the primary. Kobach named him as KBI director. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Must-read journalism

Huzzah and kudos to Miranda Moore, who covers state government for the Wichita Beacon and Kansas City Beacon. Her story “These laws could curb fentanyl deaths. Why won’t Kansas lawmakers enact them?” serves as a model of public service journalism. She summed up the problem in a memorable Tweet that applies to far more issues than this one.


On the calendar

Two bills targeting transgender people will be debated in committee next week. HB 2238, which would bar trans students from high school sports, will come up Monday at 1:30 p.m. in the House Education Committee. SB 12, which would ban gender-affirming care, will be heard Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. in the Senate Public Health Committee.

Activists have been mobilizing around this legislation, so expect forceful debates.


You said what, exactly?

Legislators might want to consider their words a little more carefully. Reporters do listen and transcribe, after all.

Rep. Owen Donohoe, R-Shawnee, shared his opinion on devoted public educators in these words: “If you look at history, it’s just an abysmal record. It’s embarrassing to say, I would think, that I’m a teacher, when we’re getting the kind of results, or have been, in this state.”

Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Bonner Springs, made light of mob violence during a committee meeting about zoning: “There were pitchforks, people holding torches and they had one of the local roofers with his tar equipment outside. Somebody was ripping up pillows for, I guess, feathers. I was thinking about getting a match to help light those torches.”

Rep. Owen Donohue
Rep. Owen Donohue says during a Wednesday House Education Committee hearing he would be embarrassed to be a teacher. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


Dragging their feet

The Senate paid tribute to Olympic gymnast and Missourian Terin Humphrey on Thursday. She also spoke up to advocate changes to the statute of limitations for child sex abuse. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the deadline for filing a civil case in Kansas is the victim’s 21st birthday. That shuts out a huge number of survivors, as many don’t come to terms with their abuse for years if not decades.

It was nice to see the chamber honor Humphrey. But legislation changing the deadline — House Bill 2169 and Senate Bill 95 — hasn’t been debated in committee or heard in either chamber. Survivors like Humphrey don’t have the lobbying apparatus or funding of the Catholic Church, but they deserve lawmakers’ attention.

I wonder if Senate President Ty Masterson is listening.

Olympic gymnast Terin Humphrey talks to reporters on the Senate floor
Olympic gymnast Terin Humphrey speaks in support of reforms to current law on childhood sexual abuse cases. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

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 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.