Statehouse scraps: Catholic lobby’s stance on abuse bill, Medicaid losses, fentanyl frustration

March 25, 2023 3:33 am

The Ad Astra state could be spotted atop the Kansas Statehouse dome on March 21, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

News officially overflowed this week.

Not only did Kansas Reflector reporters chase a multitude of stories around the Statehouse, but events we already covered unwound in unpredictable ways. You’ll see how throughout today’s roundup.

In the middle of this all, we managed to speak to audiences in Hutchinson and Valley Falls. Thanks to the 200 or so folks who turned out at both events. We appreciate your insightful questions, and we plan to keep mopping up the news and bringing it to you.

Now, let’s all take a deep, refreshing breath before plunging into the icy water.

OK. Time to begin.


Catholic Conference stance

If Kansas legislators want to know whether the Catholic Church’s lobbying arm supports efforts to reform child sex abuse law, they had better ask.

Both Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith and I wrote about the valiant quest of sex abuse survivors to reform statute of limitations laws. A pressing question has been how the church’s lobbying arm, the Kansas Catholic Conference, would respond.

Smith excerpted some of the statement issued by conference executive director Chuck Weber, but nowhere in the text does the conference explicitly endorse the bill or promise to lobby for the legislation. So I emailed Weber, a former legislator, to ask whether either action was planned.

After reiterating the statement, he added that: “If asked by elected officials in the House or Senate, we would recommend passage of SB 317.”

There you have it, folks. If you want to know, you have to ask.

Child sex abuse survivors (from left) Tess Ramirez, Joe Cheray, Lesa Patterson-Kinsey and Kim Bergman appear at their advocacy table March 21, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka. They have appeared at the Statehouse and met with lawmakers every week since the start of the session in hopes of passing a law to remove barriers to criminal and civil litigation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


‘Death and destruction’

You might recall that earlier this work I cautioned politicians to be careful about the words they use. Heedless rhetoric can torpedo trust in government and destabilize institutions.

Former President Trump was one of my examples, but he apparently didn’t see the column. He wrote Friday on his Truth Social platform: “What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting President in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country?”

So much for keeping a cool head.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a news conference with members of the coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence, on Feb. 26, 2020. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)


Health insurance loss

The Kansas Health Institute, an erstwhile nonprofit across the street from the Statehouse, published an article Wednesday outlining big changes coming to the state’s Medicaid program. Thanks to pandemic-era federal rules, tens of thousands of Kansans have remained on the public health insurance rolls without eligibility checks. All of that is about to change, with the COVID-19 public health emergency drawing to a close March 31.

According to the institute’s calculations, 132,701 Kansans stand to lose their coverage in coming months. That’s the difference between folks who were enrolled before the pandemic and those enrolled at the end of last year.

“As eligibility redeterminations resume, many of these Kansans may not be aware of the requirements or may be unable to complete the requirements to maintain coverage, or they may no longer be eligible for Medicaid coverage, and are at risk of becoming uninsured,” writes KHI’s Phillip Steiner.

Speaking of which, expanding the KanCare program would cover an estimated 150,000 Kansans. GOP legislative leaders have steadfastly refused to do so, but it’s worth pointing out that our state has covered nearly as many extra people over the last few years and no one appeared to notice. Except the people who actually had health insurance, of course.

Advocates crowd a KanCare Medicaid expansion rally on March 15, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Fentanyl roadblock

Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchison, has been a determined advocate for legalizing fentanyl test strips in Kansas. The strips allow users to detect the presence of the substance in other drugs. Unfortunately during this last week, a bill clearing their use was unceremoniously gutted in the Senate. The House had approved the measure unanimously, but never mind.

Probst wrote a remarkable, anguished piece on his Substack page about the move. A couple of selected paragraphs follow:

“In this building, we’re supposed to be here to do good work. To help people. To learn — about our state, our industries, our people, and the challenges they encounter in their daily lives. And we’re supposed to use that information to put in place policy that will make our state better.

“Many days, I don’t feel that’s what’s happening here. And certainly when it comes to battling our opioid epidemic, and the growing scourge of fentanyl, there’s a group of people – all of them in the Senate – who refuse to acknowledge this reality or to take even the simplest steps to help.”

Read the whole thing.

Reps. Eric Smith and Boog Highberger speak in support of fentanyl test strips during a Feb. 23, 2023 House hearing. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Reps. Eric Smith and Boog Highberger speak in support of fentanyl test strips during a Feb. 23, 2023, House hearing. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


Bishop’s statement

The Rev. Susan Candea, bishop for the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, issued a powerful statement March 17 about legislation in Kansas and Missouri targeting transgender people. Thanks to Rabbi Moti Rieber for the tip. An excerpt follows:

“Be careful when you draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ because Jesus is always on the other side with ‘them.'” 

I do not remember when or from whom I heard that statement. However, it has stuck with me and challenges me as I continue to wrestle with proclaiming the gospel in relevant and faithful ways. The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus standing with, eating with, healing, touching, and welcoming those whom the culture labeled as “them” – Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors, women, outcasts, children, the least, the last, the poor, the meek, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted — proclaiming that in God’s reign “they” are the greatest. Our society often labels transgender people and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ as “them.” Today I am writing to publicly announce that I stand with “them.”

You can read the entire statement here, as posted on the synod’s Facebook page.

Adam Kellog, a transgender man and University of Kansas student from Olathe, listens to speakers during a bodily autonomy rally March 6, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka
Adam Kellogg, a transgender man and University of Kansas student from Olathe, listens to speakers during a bodily autonomy rally March 6, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka. Kellogg says the transgender community is terrified by legislative proposals that jeopardize their ability to exist. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Trans bill veto

While we’re on the subject, Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a bill March 17 that bars transgender girls and women from playing on girls’ and women’s teams in K-12 schools and college.

As I’ve written in this space before, attention now turns to the sole Democrat who voted for the bill in the House, Rep. Ford Carr of Wichita. If he were to flip his vote on an override attempt, Carr could prevent the bill from becoming law. (So could any number of Republicans in either chamber, but the bill appears to be a priority for their leaders.)

Unfortunately for advocates, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Carr told the Kansas City Star that he didn’t plan on changing his stance and that “I haven’t considered it any further.”

That’s likely to be cold comfort for LGBTQ Kansans looking to live free from state-sanctioned discrimination.

Gov. Laura Kelly on March 17 vetoed a bill barring transgender athletes from playing sports. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Open records update

If you were listening to KCUR on Monday morning, you  heard your favorite opinion editor (or second-favorite, for you Dion Lefler fans) on Up to Date. I talked about Emporia State University’s attempt to prevent or delay the Reflector’s recent open-records request.

During the show, I said we had decided to pay the ridiculous $700 ransom demanded by university officials. Here’s an update on where things stand. After making the payment on Monday morning, ESU processed it at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. We now wait to see if it takes them a full 20 hours — at $35 an hour! — to tell us which professors received performance bonuses this semester. Yes, we were really asking the tough questions there.

Tim Carpenter, Rachel Mipro and Sherman Smith appear March 21, 2023, at a Valley Falls town hall. (Jessica Tufts for Kansas Reflector)

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 Reflector columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and website across the state and nation. He 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 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.