Statehouse scraps: The hearings that weren’t, school monopoly loopiness, bills never die in Kansas

March 17, 2023 3:33 am
Oshara Hayes, right, demonstrates in support of Medicaid expansion March 15, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Topeka

Oshara Hayes, right, demonstrates in support of Medicaid expansion March 15, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Where are the hearings?

That’s my question as the Kansas Statehouse barrels into its final three weeks. Gov. Laura Kelly and advocates rallied for Medicaid expansion on Wednesday. Forget whether lawmakers want to approve the policy or not. They haven’t even held a single hearing about it this session. Kansas Reflector has run repeated stories and columns about the sorry state of Kansas sex abuse law. No hearings have been held. Other vital legislation, such as Sen. Ethan Corson’s proposal to raise our paltry minimum wage, has likewise gone undiscussed.

Not all bills become law or even get a vote on the House and Senate floor. I understand that. I would wager that most Kansans understand that.

But why would committees be so reluctant to talk about obviously good ideas that would help the state and its people? Perhaps they’re afraid that if they do, they might have to actually take action.

Activists fill the Statehouse calling for expansion of KanCare at a rally held Wednesday, March 15. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Monopoly hogwash

Of the loopy quotes to emanate from the Kansas Legislature this session, one of the loopiest came from Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, on Tuesday.

“Our public schools are a monopoly,” she said, according to Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro. “It’s the only monopoly in our economy today, if you think about it. You can go anywhere you want and purchase any type of medical care, you can choose where you get your hair cut, you can choose to go to higher ed anywhere, but the K-12, you don’t.”

Williams’ comments are, to put it mildly, deluded. Calling public schools a monopoly reveals a ludicrous misunderstanding of government and public institutions.

School systems aren’t businesses. They serve the public, regardless of social standing. We all contribute, through our tax dollars, to the greater good of our society. That’s the same reason we have fire departments and a military. That’s the same reason we have police officers and roads. Our forefathers and foremothers understood that free enterprise only goes so far. We band together to support a network of schools to ensure our state grows and innovates.

Public schools help us get there.

Rep. Kristey Williams, the driving force behind the education bill, counts votes during a Wednesday House meeting. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Kristey Williams, the driving force behind the education bill, counts votes during a Wednesday House meeting. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


Not so fast

Reporters and advocates were quick to declare a medical marijuana bill dead for this session after comments from Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, at a hearing Thursday.

That’s only the case if you take what legislators say at face value. Fact is, no legislation ever truly dies at the Kansas Statehouse. Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins have a multitude of methods at their disposal to resurrect bills. Medical marijuana legislation could be inserted into the shell of another bill. It could be included in an amendment. With enough votes at their disposal, leaders can change the rules to make almost anything happen.

Does that necessarily mean that 2023 will be the year for legalized cannabis? I wouldn’t hold your breath. But don’t count it out, either.

Advocates, lobbyists and journalists stand along the room's edge during a hearing on medical marijuana hearing on Wednesday
Advocates, lobbyists and journalists stand along the room’s edge during a hearing on medical marijuana hearing on Wednesday. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Hide the legislator

The House passed an education overhaul bill Wednesday, but it took some time. A 60-64 vote eventually turned into a 64-61 vote to pass the legislation, which includes a voucher program, special education funding and teacher pay guarantees.

How did leadership find the time to twist arms over an hour or so? The have members vote for what’s known as a “call of the House” (rule 2508 here), meaning that all representatives present in the Statehouse need to take their seats. The chamber sits and waits until that happens. If leadership needs extra minutes to wheedle and plead, they select a representative to play hooky. He or she finds a comfortable place to hide and the rest of the representatives wait.

Whenever the needed number of votes have been flipped (or the exercise simply doesn’t work), the “missing” lawmaker returns, and the chamber moves on. Folks who work in and around the Statehouse watch this charade year after year, but they accept it as the price of doing business.

In this case, Rep. Bill Sutton (R-Gardner) appears to have been the member who mysteriously disappeared when the going got tough. He also appears to have been the member who magically returned when leadership had flipped the votes needed.

Speaker of the House Rep. Dan Hawkins rallied Republican representatives to vote in favor of a controversial education proposal during a House meeting
Speaker of the House Rep. Dan Hawkins rallied Republican representatives to vote in favor of a controversial education proposal during a House meeting. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


Plastic bag ban ban

Earlier this month, I wrote about the zombie-like return of the Kansas Chamber’s efforts to ban local restrictions on plastic bags. The Senate Commerce Committee voted against the bill in its earlier form, as Senate Bill 47. Local environmentalists rejoiced until the new version, House Bill 2446, staggered onto the scene. It even saw a hearing in the House Federal and State Affairs committee on Wednesday.

You can watch that hearing below. The panel hasn’t worked the bill yet, but as I noted above, nothing’s over until it’s over.


Commentary on commentary

Wrongest man in Kansas politics Dave Trabert wrote about yours truly this week in a delightful opinion column. Like most of his prose, it was a farrago of barely comprehensible nonsense. I could post a lengthy rebuttal to his propaganda on behalf of flat taxes and school vouchers, but let’s just say I stand by the columns as written. I also stand by the fact that between the two of us, only one wrote a book defending former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax policy. You can pick up a used copy on Amazon for only $2!

Meanwhile, in the world of rational people writing about actual facts, Jill Docking and Duane Goossen contributed an excellent column about recent flat tax proposals to the Wichita Eagle. Docking ran for high-profile offices and served on the Board of Regents; Goossen was budget director for Republican and Democratic governors, as well as secretary of administration.

Just one more thing before heading out this week. Here’s Trabert, in different times and in a different role, sharing “our opinion” that the state should raise taxes to pay for quality public schools.


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.