Statehouse scraps: Veto overrides that fizzled, shameful anti-trans bill, Kansas governor persists

April 29, 2023 3:33 am
Gov. Laura Kelly appears with school children

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly visited students at Topeka's Jardine Elementary School in February. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

You’ll hear no argument from me, friends. This veto session of the Kansas Legislature was a rough one.

I try to keep an optimistic tone in my columns and life, but such optimism was a challenge to summon at points this week. Lawmakers dived headfirst into odious transphobia, disdain for the poor and attempts to convert the heathens among us. Leaders made sure to block Medicaid expansion or marijuana legalization despite overwhelming public support for both.

Kansans could be forgiven for simply retiring to bed, pulling the cover over their heads, and waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike the Statehouse (figuratively, of course). Yet a handful of good things happened anyway, and a brave batch of elected officials stood up for their principles.

Here’s a roundup from this week and beyond.


Vetoes sustained

Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a bunch of bills this year, and as she surely suspected, a bunch of those vetoes were overridden. She did manage to successfully block a handful, however.

Senate President Ty Masterson’s goal for the year — a bloated flat tax package that offered a bit to everyone but a lot to wealthy people — went down in flames. Twice. You have to wonder about the political acuity of a leader who manages that feat. While Sen. Carolyn McGinn flipped her vote from against the bill to for it, Sen. Rob Olson flipped his vote from for to against.

Masterson then stripped Olson of his Utilities Committee chairmanship, but all the punishments in the world won’t get that bill passed this year.

In other good news, a bill that would have effectively banned gender-affirming care for those younger than 18 failed in the Senate. Republican Sens. John Doll and McGinn joined Democrats in voting to sustain the governor’s veto.

But that’s not all! Other shady bills that didn’t make it across the finish line included:

  • House Bill 2344, which would have loosened rules on child care centers.
  • Senate Bill 209, which would have eliminated a three-day grace period for the return of advance ballots.
  • House Bill 2304, which would have instituted NRA-developed gun safety programs in public schools.

Kansans across the board can thank Kelly for standing as a firewall against these bad policies, and for just enough legislators standing with her to keep them from becoming bad laws.

Sen. Rob Olson said a medical marijuana bill should be ready to go at the start of the legislative session. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Rob Olson was punished by Senate President Ty Masterson after voting against a flat tax package. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


So many questions

The cynically named “women’s bill of rights” garnered abundant headlines this week. A heinous piece of anti-trans hate masquerading as legislation, it marked a shameful low point for the session. Despite last-minute drama on the House floor, lawmakers still overrode Kelly’s veto.

The new law raises big questions (you can read the text here). The brief text doesn’t create any new crimes, establish any enforcement mechanisms or describe any penalties. It also appears to directly contradict a consent agreement the state reached with Lambda Legal back in 2019 agreeing to change the birth certificates of transgender people. Hey, sometimes lawmakers just need to write some discrimination into law right away.

Someone in Attorney General Kris Kobach’s office noticed, though.

The following appears in the bill’s supplemental note: “The constitutionality of the legislation is likely to be challenged and would likely need to go through the appellate process for a definitive ruling on the validity of the law. The litigation could be ongoing for two to four years depending on the court system.”

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn votes no on the women's bill of rights during a Thursday House committee meeting. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Lindsay Vaughn votes no on the “women’s bill of rights” bill during a House committee meeting in March. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


Kelly’s take

How did the governor feel after this weeks override-a-palooza?

Given that we’re talking about Kelly, you won’t be surprised to learn that she offered a measured response. She emphasized her trusted themes while sounding disappointed with the Legislature. That makes two of us.

“I promised Kansans I’d govern from the middle of the road and that I’d serve as a check on legislation that is too extreme one way or the other,” she said in an emailed statement from her office on Thursday.

“I’m disappointed some legislators are eager to force through extremist legislation that will hurt our economy and tarnish our reputation as the Free State,” she said. “I strive every day to make Kansas a place where more people want to work and raise a family. These bills will reverse much of the progress we’ve made in recent years.

“I thank those who have stood with me in keeping Kansas moving forward, in protecting our public schools, and in looking out for everyday working Kansans.”

Gov. Laura Kelly appears at an April 24, 2023, news conference at Elmont Elementary School north of Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Phelps heirs

I’m still collecting my thoughts on the spate of anti-trans legislation that made it through the House and Senate since Wednesday. Stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, please read Wichita Eagle opinion editor Dion Lefler’s take: “Fred Phelps is dead, but Kansas lawmakers are making his bigoted dreams come true.” He connects the dots between the infamous Phelps, whose campaign of hate scarred Kansas, and those who even today rush to inflict pain on others in the name of religious fanaticism.

Lefler writes: “I have long suspected that for many Kansans, the main objection to Phelps was not his beliefs, but his tactics. He said what a lot of people think, but he said it in a way that was giving bigotry a bad name.”

Legislators this year tried to gussy up their contempt for those who are different. They wore the drag, so to speak, of decent people.

Many of us can see the truth.

Kansans of all ages gathered at the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse on March 31. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


KSHSAA responds

I wrote at length April 9 about the anti-trans youth sports bill passed by the Legislature. At the time, I had reached out to the Kansas State High School Activities Association for clarification on a couple of points. They didn’t get back to me in time for the column, but they did eventually send some responses of interest.

Jeremy Holaday, the group’s assistant executive director, wrote that while officials don’t have a set timeline for new rules, they “would anticipate something before the new school year.”

I also asked him what kind of medical requirements KSHSAA already has in place for student athletes. He responded that students should have a physical and head injury release form on file with the group, renewed for each school year. At this point, it administers activities for seventh grade students through high school seniors.

Rep. Heather Meyer wears a "protect trans youth" T-shirt Wednesday on the floor of the Kansas House
Rep. Heather Meyer wears a “protect trans youth” T-shirt Wednesday on the floor of the Kansas House as lawmakers vote to ban transgender athletes from school sports. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)


Editor remembered

Thanks to those of you who wrote in response to my column a week ago about legendary New Hampshire editor Mike Pride. It was lovely to hear from folks near and far, some of who knew Mike and others who just appreciated the power of mentorship.

I’m sorry to let you know that Mike died on Monday at the age of 76. He did have the chance to read that column, which humbles me. If you want to know more about Mike, please read the astonishing obituary written by his friend (and mine), Mark Travis, at the Concord Monitor. My New Hampshire colleague in States Newsroom, Dana Wormald, also wrote a profound memorial.

What a magnificent life.


So many scraps

Good news, everyone!

Statehouse scraps for the 2023 session concludes with this very column. Yes, I know. This week was rough, but the legislative off-season beckons, and we can work on repairing all of these fresh psychic wounds.

Thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you in my other columns. Exciting new projects beckon.

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 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.