Senate clashes over gutting of Kansas overdose fatality bill unanimously passed by House

GOP objects to idea of creating large state board to investigate root causes

By: - March 29, 2023 10:08 am
Sen. Kristen O'Shea, R-Topeka, sought to save a bill unanimously adopted by the Kansas House to address the crisis of opioid overdose deaths in Kansas, but she fell short amid opposition from other GOP senators. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Kristen O’Shea, R-Topeka, sought to save a bill unanimously adopted by the Kansas House to address the crisis of opioid overdose deaths in Kansas, but she fell short amid opposition from other GOP senators. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republicans in the Kansas Senate voted Wednesday to undercut a plan for responding to the crisis in opioid overdose deaths by gutting a bill unanimously passed by the Kansas House and converting it into a vehicle to blunt authority of state and local officials to issue public health directives during disease outbreaks.

The maneuver led to a tumultuous scene on the Senate floor pitting conservative GOP senators irritated about handling of the COVID-19 pandemic against a bipartisan minority interested in restoring the version of House Bill 2390 that passed the House on a vote of 121-0.

The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee had deleted from the House bill authorization for a new state board to search for answers to the rise in fentanyl poisonings and fatalities in Kansas. The committee led by Eudora GOP Sen. Beverly Gossage also cut from the House bill a softening of state paraphernalia law to permit use of test strips to determine whether fake prescription pills or other drugs were laced with fentanyl.

The committee added to the bill Hutchinson Republican Sen. Mark Steffen’s strategy for placing in state law restraints on the influence of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary and county health officers. Steffen says those public health officials bungled COVID-19 so badly they should be limited to issuing recommendations — not mandates — in future emergencies.

Steffen said it was imperative the Legislature strip KDHE secretaries and county officials of power to quarantine or otherwise restrict freedom of movement during a health calamity.


O’Shea’s rebellion

Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, urged colleagues to delete all the Senate committee’s changes to the bill and reclaim the House’s vision. Her plea was rejected 13-21.

The bill was passed Wednesday on final action in the Senate 23-16, meaning it was now available for negotiations between the House and Senate on a potential compromise.

“Unfortunately, the Senate committee opted to utilize this critical, unanimously supported bill as a vehicle for unrelated, controversial topics compromising the lives of Kansans in the process,” O’Shea said. “Rather than looking at the pandemic of the past, we need to focus our collective attention on the plague affecting our future and support efforts to reduce the impact of counterfeit drugs laced with fentanyl poisoning our people.”

Senate Democratic leader Dinah Sykes of Lenexa said: “This bill was gutted in committee. Important legislation was deleted.”

Sykes said the GOP’s distortion of the House bill was odd because the Senate already passed Steffen’s bill declawing Kansas public health officials. In February, Senate Bill 6 authored by Steffen was passed 22-18 by the Senate. In addition, it was Kansas Republicans who took the lead during the 2022 election cycle demanding action against rise in accidental U.S. opioid deaths.


Just redundant

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, had advised colleagues to reject the attempt to unravel the Senate committee’s incarnation of the bill, arguing lawmakers should be respectful of work by committees at the Capitol.

“I don’t have a lot of respect for this committee,” O’Shea said.

Steffen, too, threw water on O’Shea’s rebuke. He particularly disliked the House’s concept of appointing a state board with two-dozen members to make recommendations on opioid usage. He said other state government workers could fill that advisory role.

“There were no rash decisions made” by the Senate committee, Steffen said. “This was incredible redundant government that’s not necessary.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Sen. Kristen O’Shea, R-Topeka, made a procedural motion to drop from the bill the Senate committee’s changes. The unsuccessful challenge was initiated on a voice vote of the full Senate. 

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.