Senate President Ty Masterson, right, and House Speaker Dan Hawkins outline the Republican legislative agenda on Jan. 10, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Legislature does not have to operate this way.
Republican leaders have chosen this path.
Specifically, Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins of Wichita and Senate President Ty Masterson of Andover, both Republicans, have decided they can serve Kansans best by gutting bills and making them impossible to track, holding late-night hearings that put the lives of their fellow legislators at risk and prioritizing extravagant ideology.
They want it this way. They have made decisions, day by day and week by week, that have led to this confusing, confounding mess.
I don’t like to blame all legislative Republicans for situations like this. Many have worked hard to bring forward good policy this session. But a majority of them chose Hawkins and Masterson as leaders. If one of these legislators tries to tell you, in a personal conversation or a town hall, that they disagree with the way things went this session, don’t let them get away with it.
They made decisions, too.
Or as Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, put it Wednesday: “This bundle of bills may well be ‘just the way we do things around here,’ but it shouldn’t be.”
Listen, I understand. Readers nod off when journalists write about process. Legislators would rather grab a drink at the latest lobbyist-sponsored gathering. The way committees work and legislation evolves doesn’t interest anyone but a few eggheads in offices the size of closets. Both the Kansas City Star and Kansas Reflector’s Sherman Smith have flashed the warning lights, but the Statehouse churns its way into deeper and darker opacity.
But process matters. Over the last three days, lawmakers in both chambers have been forced to consider some 80 bills. That’s ridiculous. We’ve ended up with an education committee hearing where the actual bill text is a mystery. We’ve ended up up with pieces from 29 separate bills Frankensteined into a mammoth tax package.
That’s how we end up with this terrible mess.
None of this should surprise regular Kansas Reflector readers.
Our editor and reporters have done yeoman’s work in tracking how legislators have played legislative shell games this year, gutting bills and throwing others together with wild abandon. At the end of a busy week like this one, knowing what piece of legislation ended up where can seem like a helpless task. One eye-watering specimen: Senate Bill 174 includes an 18-page summary tracking the source of its constituent parts.
That’s just one bill, though. Six other examples, all from this month, follow. I can’t keep from commenting on a few.
March 3: “During a Thursday House K-12 Education Budget Committee hearing, chairwoman Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, gave a hearing on an education bill that will be gutted and reworked Monday, rendering testimony moot.”
This was the story I referred to earlier. I can’t imagine a more egregious example of leadership not giving a damn about what the public thinks. Why bother to collect comment from Kansans when you can change the subject of any bill at will and pass it through?
“The content, for those that asked, I told them, ‘Don’t even worry about the content,’ is what we’re having the hearing on today,” Williams said, according to reporter Rachel Mipro.
March 20: A Senate panel gutted legislation to “remove a provision legalizing use of fentanyl strips to help people avoid overdose deaths and to add language degrading authority of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and local officials in public health emergencies.”
In this case, a unanimous vote of the House — 121 to 0 — was tossed aside like so much Kleenex by chairwoman Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora. Never mind the toll of fentanyl on Kansans of all ages throughout the state. Vaccine conspiracy theorists must be coddled instead.
March 22: “Complex details of the Kansas House’s plan for state funding of K-12 education were woven into contents of nine other bills that included policy allowing private school students to take part in extracurricular activities at public schools.”
March 22: “Senate lawmakers have rolled legislation to punish physicians who prescribe gender-affirming medication and surgery for teenage Kansans into an unrelated bill and moved the whole package forward.”
For the record, that unrelated bill would have given properly trained pharmacy techs the ability to give vaccines. But sure, let’s take the opportunity to target those providing health care to transgender people. Incidentally, if you’re a woman who ever used lipstick or a man who ever grew a moustache, congratulations: You’ve affirmed your gender.
Why do Kansas legislative leaders choose this path?
Ignorance, arrogance and naked craving for power.
Ignorance because neither Hawkins nor Masterson exhibits anything like the policy knowledge or mental acuity needed to actually master Kansas government policy. They’re power-hungry cogs, bought and paid for by wealthy business interests and malevolent think tanks.
Arrogance because they don’t care about the public or traditional legislative processes. They have decided on what they want and will get it no matter the cost. That means shoving the actual work of legislating to conference committees that make the last-minute sausage. They then ensure the bills pass by pushing legislators to the breaking point of stress and exhaustion.
“YOU MUST VOTE ON THIS RIGHT NOW. DO IT. DO IT NOW,” they tell the rank-and-file. “IT’S TOO LATE TO DO SOMETHING ELSE.”
As demonstration of both, consider Masterson showing up last month to testify in favor of a bill he hadn’t even read.
Finally, and above all, these men lust for power. These men crave climbing ever higher in the hierarchy of Kansas government, ever closer to the handful of people who can bestow life-changing favors, cushy jobs and gold-plated retirement benefits. Everyday Kansans can’t hope to compete. They don’t have six-figure jobs at Wichita State to hand out like candy or legislator of the year awards to bestow. They just struggle with their own unglamorous lives and needs.
Democrats, meanwhile, labor to find opportunities anywhere they can.
Bill bundling offers them opportunities to insert legislation that Republicans in the other chamber may have refused to consider. A chunk of their favored policy, even if included in an otherwise problematic bill, counts as a win.
But none of this needs to happen. Leaders needn’t put their personal shortcomings ahead of the state. Republicans and Democrats alike needn’t settle for half a loaf.
If everyone at the Statehouse decided tomorrow to make the Kansas government different and better, they could. All bills could receive hearings. Committee work could proceed unimpeded. Gutting and bundling could be forbidden by chamber rules. Lawmakers could head home at 5 p.m. every night to eat dinner with their families.
Hawkins and Masterson could make all this a reality. But they would have to want to.
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.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.