Statehouse scraps: Doing the math on veto overrides, Trump leads Kansas poll, Kelly skips new group

February 25, 2023 3:33 am

Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during a school appearance on Feb. 21, 2023. What bills she chooses to veto — and whether those vetoes can be overridden — will shape the 2023 session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

We’ve arrived finally, officially, at the halfway point in the Kansas Legislature’s 2023 session. The key question for leaders and onlookers now becomes: Can you count to 27 or 84? Those vote thresholds in the Senate and House, respectively, override Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes.

With Republicans holding supermajorities in each chamber, you might think they have an easy task in steamrolling the Democratic governor. But actual vote margins over the last couple of days suggest that forcing through many right-wing bills will be a challenge — if not impossible. A few legislators on the edges could end up wielding tremendous power.

This week’s roundup, then, starts with math. I apologize in advance.


Counting to two-thirds

Republicans hold 29 seats in the Senate, while Democrats have 11. That means three GOP members have to split from their party to sustain a veto. In the House, Republicans have a 85-40 advantage. Sustaining a veto there requires two GOP defections.

If either chamber sustains a veto, the legislation dies. Both have to agree for a successful override.

The Senate has 40 members total, and the House has 125, with overrides requiring a two-thirds majority. The numbers I mention above — 27 and 84 — apply no matter how many members of either chamber show up. In other words, absent or missing lawmakers automatically count as “no” votes.

This means, frankly, that Republican bigwigs have all the reasons in the world to aim high during this first half of the session. They know that their most extreme ideas will hit a wall of resistance, first from Kelly and then from a handful of GOP moderates. On the other hand, the conference includes far fewer moderates today than it did even a couple of years ago. They just might be able to score a big win.

One more point: Most of the legislation I’m writing about today has passed a single chamber. It will have to make it through both before reaching Kelly. There’s a lot of story left.

Senate President Ty Masterson (right) and Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins outline the Republican legislative agenda on Jan. 10, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Anti-trans bills

Let’s look at bills targeting transgender youth first.  A youth sports ban passed the House 82-40. Three legislators were missing, two Republicans and one Democrat.

Doing the math suggests that the bill has 84 total votes in favor and 41 total votes against. That’s the exact number needed to override an inevitable Kelly veto. But when you look at the roll call, two Republicans crossed the aisle to vote against the bill while one Democrat defected to the majority. If new Wichita Democrat Ford Carr changes direction, activists could prevent the bill from becoming law once again.

Of course, if that happens, Republicans would likely pressure their two opposing votes — Mark Schreiber of Emporia and David Younger of Ulysses — to return to the fold.

Over in the Senate, a bill that would effectively ban gender-affirming health care passed 26-11. Three members were present but didn’t vote for or against the bill, denying leadership a two-thirds majority. If they stick to their guns after an eventual veto, the bill would die.

Lindsay Vaughn
Rep. Lindsay Vaughn said the proposed ban on transgender athletes doesn’t address any of the inequities she faced as a high school athlete. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Other legislation

Once you have those numbers and percentages in mind, the whole landscape of the Legislature changes.

That giant 4.75% flat tax plan? It passed the Senate 22-17, with six Republicans joining Democrats to vote against it (one member was absent). Unless some serious negotiating goes on behind the scenes, that’s a lot of votes to flip. Senators also approved an accompanying bill that ended up eliminating all state and local sales taxes on food by a 22-16 vote (one member passed and one was absent).

Likewise, legislation that would end a three-day grace period for advance ballots and do away with drop boxes didn’t receive enough votes to override eventual vetoes. The grace period elimination vote was 77-45 in the House and 23-17 in the Senate, while the drop-box ban passed 21-19. The path ahead for both seems precarious.

Finally, a measure allowing parents to pull their children out of classes they find objectionable only passed the House 75-47.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, talks to Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, on the Senate floor. Holland tried unsuccessfully on Thursday to amend a flat tax proposal championed by Masterson.


Wide-angle view

With all this being said, Statehouse watchers shouldn’t take any outcome for granted. Leaders have many tools up their sleeves to enforce party discipline. Kelly may not choose to veto every controversial bill. Advocacy campaigns may change lawmakers’ minds. When we all arrive at veto session, the halls of the Statehouse will be full of fevered conversations, and even the most plugged-in could be surprised a time or two.

Think of how different the picture would be, however, if Republican Derek Schmidt had won the governor’s race back in November. Every one of the bills I’m writing about would be guaranteed to become law. Statehouse leaders would be grappling with the tough choice of seeing just how much legislation they could pass in a limited time. Instead, they will rely on some combination of badgering, cajoling, sleight-of-hand and — yes — even compromise to accomplish their goals.

Derek Schmidt addresses crowd.
Derek Schmidt addresses the crowd late Tuesday at the GOP watch party in Topeka. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)


Trump in the lead

Kansas voters considering an array of Republican candidates for president like Donald Trump. A new Remington poll shows the former president with 30% support, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 17%. There’s a three-way tie for third place, with former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all at 9%. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has 2% support. Six percent of voters select someone else, while 19% are undecided.

That has to smart for Pompeo, a former U.S. representative for Kansas’ 4th District. In a head-to-head matchup, he trailed at 36% to Trump’s 39%, with 25% undecided. The poll has good news for DeSantis, though. He bests Trump in a head-to-head standoff, 41% to 33%, with 26% of voters undecided.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to reporters during a COVID-19 briefing in April 2020 at the White House with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to his left. Pompeo is a potential candidate for president in 2024. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters during a COVID-19 briefing in April 2020 at the White House with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to his left. (White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)


Where’s Kelly?

Twenty Democratic governors have united to support abortion rights. The Reproductive Freedom Alliance “will stand as a firewall to fight for and protect providers, patients, and all who are affected by these attacks on fundamental rights,” according to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the group’s leader and definitely not a presidential candidate. At least not in 2024.

One governor not on the list caught my eye: Kelly. I asked her office for comment, and communications director Brianna Johnson emphasized her boss’s support of abortion rights.

“Gov. Kelly will continue to protect women’s rights to make their own private medical decisions,” she said. “Kansas voters just made their voices loud and clear on this issue, and she will continue fighting to ensure they’re heard here in Kansas.”

Kelcie Moseley-Morris, the reproductive rights reporter for States Newsroom, lists the rest: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Delaware Gov. John Carney, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.

Gov. Laura Kelly attends a meeting of the State Finance Council on Feb. 2, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Another Reflector stop

Kansas Reflector staff added another stop to our bustling winter-spring tour: Hutchinson. Editor-in-Chief Sherman Smith and yours truly will speak at 6:30 p.m., March 20, at Justice Auditorium in the Shears Technology Building of Hutchinson Community College. That’s a Monday evening, for those of you keeping track. We appreciate the Women for Kansas chapter inviting us to its monthly gathering, and all are welcome.

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. Before joining the Reflector, 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.