Statehouse scraps: A toothpick factory on the moon, punishing the poor, elevating conspiracies

February 18, 2023 3:33 am

The Kansas Statehouse saw frenzied hearings, vote after vote, and exhausted advocates this week. Opinion editor Clay Wirestone rounds up a selection of overlooked tidbits, including a proposed toothpick factory on the moon. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Do I have news for you! This week at the Kansas Statehouse practically quivered with nervous energy, as hearings stacked merrily atop one another, legislators kept saying outrageous things, and Kansas Reflector staff took their coffee black to keep up with it all.

This week’s roundup features a jaw-dropping 11 items, and believe me when I tell you there could be more.


Read those minutes

The best moment of the week came in the House Welfare Reform Committee on Valentine’s Day. Rep. Duane Droge, R-Eureka, pointed out a staffer’s unusual addition to the minutes.

“There’s one section that should be struck from the minutes on the 9th,” he told the committee. “If you look at the second page, a motion was made by Rep. Droge and seconded by Rep. Humphries to purchase 120 acres of land in the Mare Tranquillitatis area of the moon upon which to build a toothpick factory. And Mr. Deeter brought it to my attention he didn’t think people were reading the minutes, so he very cleverly put that in there.”

The moon land purchase was removed from the minutes, but the representative’s point stands. You can watch the whole thing, including a late entrance from Rep. Susan Humphries, below.


Restrictive bills move

Unfortunately, the Welfare Reform Committee does more than provide lunar-based jests. It also passes out legislation that would harm Kansas kids and families. That’s what it did Thursday, forwarding House Bill 2140 and House Bill 2141 along to the full chamber.

Both bills were amended along the way. According to the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children, HB 2140, which would add barriers to Kansans in their 50s receiving food assistance, now calls this population “work registrants without dependents” rather than “able bodied adults without dependents.” HB 2141, which requires child support cooperation to receive aid, added an amendment about how the Department for Children and Families might interpret cooperation.

“It’s clear that many members of the Welfare Reform Committee do not understand the needs of Kansans struggling to afford groceries. The two bills they passed out today are punitive, costly, and will create more barriers to accessing the food assistance program,” said Erin Melton, KAC’s food security policy adviser.

(Full disclosure: I worked at KAC from 2017 to 2021.)

Erin Melton, food security policy adviser at Kansas Action for Children, testifies in front of the House Welfare Reform Committee on Feb. 7. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector) (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Conspiracy theories

Congratulations to Mike Brown, the newly minted chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. Brown also just happens to have spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, in which President Joe Biden defeated incumbent President Donald Trump by a measly 7 million votes.

I couldn’t help but think about Brown while reading recent reports that Fox News personalities rejected those same election fraud claims in 2020. Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul and network chairman, called them “really crazy stuff,” according to the New York Times.

So now a man who believes that “really crazy stuff” has been selected to lead Kansas Republicans. What could go wrong?

Republican secretary of state candidate Mike Brown, a former Johnson County commissioner, repeatedly criticized Kansas politicians for failing to properly secure elections in the state. He spoke Monday at an Olathe forum on election integrity sponsored by a political action committee. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Mike Brown, a former Johnson County commissioner, also ran for Kansas secretary of state. He was elected chairman of the Kansas Republican Party last weekend. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)


Coordination achieved

I heard from legislators after my Wednesday column criticizing the pileup of hearings and votes this week. Not because of my general point, but because I mentioned the simultaneous Wednesday hearings about legalizing fentanyl test strips as an example.

Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, offered additional context. He said that while the 1:30 p.m. hearings in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee and Health and Human Services Committee weren’t planned, lawmakers worked to synchronize them. That allowed folks offering testimony, some of whom traveled long distances, to visit Topeka once rather than twice.

There wasn’t any insidious intent, Probst wrote. What’s more, the bills passed out of both committees.

I’m happy to include the extra information here. If worthy policy can emerge from clogged legislating of this week, all the better.

Brandy Harris answers questions while standing against a wall in a hallway of the Statehouse
Brandy Harris lost her young son to a fentanyl overdose. She asked lawmakers to add more protections against fentanyl during a Feb. 15, 2023, hearing. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


‘Bill of rights’

Senate Bill 180 raced through a Wednesday hearing in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, with a scant 30 minutes of discussion. That meant questions about the bill, which defines “female” in an exclusionary way, went unanswered. According to reporter Rachel Mipro, critics said the bill “excludes intersex women and alienates women without ovaries.”

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said after the hearing that she wanted to know how many intersex people were in Kansas.

We decided to answer that question for her. Advocate Liz Hamor told the Reflector that 1.7% of the U.S. population is intersex — “as common as having red hair.” That translates to about 50,000 Kansans.

Advocate Liz Hamor spoke against a proposed “Women’s Bill of Rights” on Feb. 15, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Future swing state?

Given last summer’s resounding rejection of abortion restrictions and the reelection of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, you might be forgiven for imagining that the Sunflower State has grown bluer in recent years. Liberal political blog the Daily Kos has published a piece that agrees.

The Feb. 3 article titled “Future Swing States: Where Democrats Can Expand the Electoral Map” lists Kansas as a potential swing state in 10-12 years. Key quote: “The Democratic Party in the state has been excellent at doing the best it can with what it’s got. For the last 30 years, when the Republicans have veered far to the right in their culture wars, Dems have put up moderate candidates for Governor and have won.”

Thanks to alert reader Brad, who sent along a link to the piece.

Kansas could become a swing state in a little more than a decade according to a Daily Kos post. (Derek Slagle/Getty Images)


Food tax fight

The friendly folks from Kansas Appleseed spotted a curious bill introduction this week: Senate Bill 248 popped up in the Senate Committee on Assessment and Taxation. It would repeal the elimination of the sales tax on food and restrict sales tax exemptions to so-called healthy foods. A hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Monday.

“Repealing legislation to end the state food sales tax is nothing short of a broken promise to Kansans,” said Jami Reever, executive director of Appleseed, in a news release. The statement was joined by the Retail Grocers Association and Harvesters — The Community Food Network.

Gov. Laura Kelly
Gov. Laura Kelly stopped at Mi Pueblito Meat Market, a Latino-owned grocery store in Topeka, in May 2022, to promote a reduction in the state food tax. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)


Transparency fail No. 1

Mipro wrote about this shameless shortcut Friday, but I wanted to add my own two cents. An standalone “Parental Bill of Rights” bill was grafted onto unrelated legislation via amendment in the K-12 Education Budget Committee. Scott Rothschild, communications editor at the Kansas Association of School Boards, reacted as follows.

Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, D-Leawood, sounded the alarm at the hearing.

“I am just concerned that it popped up out of nowhere, and that we have not let districts weigh in on what kinds of issues or problems it might cause for them,” she said.


Transparency fail No. 2

Spotted in the Kansas City Star on Friday: Senate President Ty Masterson making the case for smoke-filled rooms and deal-making away from the public eye. Reporters Jonathan Shorman, Kevin Hardy and Katie Bernard wrote about lobbyists paying the way for lawmakers to attend Chiefs games.

“Those are all relationship builders. It’s actually probably more value than sitting in some of these rooms,” Masterson said of attending games with lawmakers, “because you’re actually able to have a candid conversation.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the candid conversations could happen in front of voters?

Senate President Ty Masterson gathers with colleagues in the Senate chamber before walking to the House for Gov. Laura Kelly’s State of the State speech. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


No bag ban ban

The Senate Commerce Committee voted against one of the Kansas Chamber’s priorities on Thursday, according to the Sunflower State Journal‘s Brad Cooper. Senate Bill 47 would have barred local governments from banning plastic grocery bags — and more. As the bill’s description put it: “Prohibiting cities and counties from regulating consumer merchandise and auxiliary containers for the consumption, transportation or protection of consumer merchandise.”

This suggests that long-running efforts to ban such bags in Wichita might finally succeed. On the other hand, the ban could be resurrected and folded into another bill before the end of the session. Strange things happen!

Kansas Chamber president Alan Cobb, right, and Kansas Chamber lobbyist Eric Stafford outline for a Kansas Reflector podcast key pieces of the business organization's 2023 agenda ahead of the new session of the Kansas Legislature starting Monday. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Chamber president Alan Cobb, right, and Kansas Chamber lobbyist Eric Stafford prepare for a recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast shortly before the start of this year’s session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Our next stop

Kansas Reflector staff will descend on North Newton’s Bethel College next month to talk about “What’s happening at the Statehouse and how it affects you.” The event, co-hosted with Harvey County Now, is set for 7 p.m. on March 30. Visit the Facebook event page to learn more.

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.