Statehouse scraps: Disability rights advocates disarm bill, anti-trans deadline, more ghost towns

April 1, 2023 3:33 am

A blue sky stretches behind the Kansas Statehouse on a recent spring day. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Happy April 1, friends! In tribute to this day of fibs and falsehoods, Twitter CEO and tech-world mastermind Elon Musk has decreed that verified accounts will lose their blue badges.

Unless they pay him, of course.

In case anyone wondered, Kansas Reflector has no plans to pay for verified status or to cover such payments for its reporters and editors. Please make sure you’re following our main account, @KansasReflector, if you spend time on Twitter. As for other platforms, stay tuned, but we also have active Facebook and TikTok accounts.

No one on staff has done the Wednesday dance yet, but there’s still time. On to this week’s roundup!


Warhead defused

Kansas disability rights advocates flexed their muscles this week. A bill called a “nuclear warhead when a flyswatter will do” was defused on the Senate floor Tuesday and ultimately passed by a 35-5 margin Wednesday. Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro wrote last week about disagreements over the bill, which would have allowed businesses to collect attorney’s fees from folks suing them under the Americans with Disabilities Act — even if the business had been breaking the federal law.

Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, came out swinging against the legislation (he offered the nuclear-grade quote), while Kansas Chamber flack Eric Stafford accused Nichols of  a “dishonest scare tactic.”

On Sunday, more than 100 national and state organizations signed a letter saying the bill “ships ADA rights off to the deep freeze of Siberia!” By Tuesday, the Chamber and its allies had thrown in the towel, amending the bill to apply only to website accessibility claims and adding other limits. The Senate approved these changes unanimously. The Kansas City Star’s Katie Bernard has more.

Kansas Chamber lobbyist Eric Stafford attends a Statehouse event on Jan. 10, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Override prognostication

Over the past few weeks, I’ve tracked the progress of an anti-trans sports bill through the House and Senate and then to Gov. Laura Kelly. The rumor in the Statehouse this week was that an override vote would come any day, but leadership didn’t end up taking the step.

I have two observations to make. First, if Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins had ample votes to override Kelly’s veto, he would have done so already. Second, we will almost certainly see an override attempt next week. Why? Because the House has 30 days after a veto to reconsider the bill. Kelly rejected it March 17.

The Legislature is scheduled to break for nearly three weeks after Thursday. In other words: The clock’s a-ticking.

Sisters Lila, left, and Margaret Bhattarai, of Lawrence, listen to directions on how to engage legislators during a March 6, 2023, rally in support of bodily autonomy at the Statehouse in Topeka
Sisters Lila, left, and Margaret Bhattarai of Lawrence listen to directions on how to engage legislators during a March 6, 2023, rally in support of bodily autonomy at the Statehouse in Topeka. The sisters said they were participating because they are upset by anti-abortion and anti-transgender legislation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Taking action

With the rights of transgender youths in Kansas and across the nation under attack, Lawrence High School students wanted to make sure their voices were heard. On Tuesday, about 250 students walked out of school and took to Louisiana and 23rd streets to demonstrate in favor of transgender rights.

As reported by school newspaper, The Budget, those protesting spanned three blocks. Read the exemplary coverage, look at the photos and commit to doing better for this state’s kids.

“I don’t want to have to live in fear of being killed, or have to hide who I am,” freshman Ash Wagner told the newspaper. “I want to be able to live in a world where I can grow up to be myself, and not have someone tell me who to be.”


Outrageous optics

Before going further, I have to remark on one of the cruelest and most callous juxtapositions I’ve ever seen. The day after a shooter took the lives of six people in Nashville — including three 9-year-old students — the Kansas house thought it was a great idea to debate a bill eliminating fees for concealed carry licenses.

Listen, I understand that people who believe in the Second Amendment rights to the exclusion of all sense believe that every day is a great day to get more weapons into the hands of more people. But this strikes me as the kind of unforced error that makes Kansas legislators look cruel, unfeeling and ignorant of the concerns of their constituents.

Rep. Rebecca Schmoe, an Ottawa Republican, advocated for a bill eliminating the state’s concealed carry permit fees. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Voices from Twitter

My Thursday column about how Republican leaders enable maximum dysfunction in the Kansas House of Representatives and Senate elicited interesting responses on Twitter. One came from former state Rep. Stephanie Byers, and another came from current Sen. Marci Francisco. Thanks to both for adding depth and background.


Ghostly question

A reader offered kind pushback against my comment in Sunday’s ghost town column that “national, state and local governments should figure out ways to support small towns.” They pointed out, quite rightly, that the state has to make do with limited tax dollars and that our country’s urban-rural divide has created societal and political problems.

That should teach me to toss off a sentence without further explanation. I do think that the divide between small towns and big cities is real and troubling, but I don’t think that leaving small towns to fend for themselves would make that better. If anything, such policy choices could worsen the problem. I also don’t think that governments have to send tax dollars to small towns. That’s probably not sustainable. But in a world where so much work is now done remotely, well-run small towns should thrive in our state and society.

An abandoned house in Dunlap, Kansas
This abandoned house in Dunlap sits behind a thicket of trees and brush. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)


Days to go

The regular session of the Legislature should wrap up on Thursday, April 6. Legislators will then be out until April 26, when they return for veto session. Gird yourself for a hectic few days, and then we can all relax. At least for a while.

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. 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 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.