Explaining why the 2023 Kansas legislative session turned out so terribly requires multiple attempts, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
This leaves those of us who follow goings-on at the Statehouse with a vexing question: Why was the 2023 legislative session so terrible?
Follow-up queries crowd close behind. What compelled senators and representatives to make the state, once again, the mockery of our nation? What prompted them to wage war on a popular governor who had just won reelection and a solid mandate? Why did several anti-abortion bills become law despite an overwhelming popular vote to support abortion rights? And what on earth did they have against transgender people?
I tried my best to answer the big question over the past four months. No, my columns don’t include every troublous aspect. But they offer a guide as Kansans pick up the pieces and figure out how to move ahead with a legislative branch that despises its people.
Here are eight reasons why the 2023 session shocked and sickened.
One: They don’t listen to the majority
The first few days of the 2023 Kansas legislative session have exposed a core contradiction: Elected Republican lawmakers only respect the elections that put them in power.
Other elections, such as those on the local level or for statewide constitutional amendments, don’t carry the same weight. Indeed, they might not represent the will of the people at all, even though many people voted in them. This peculiar juxtaposition of beliefs has already encouraged lawmakers and advocates to make colossal fools of themselves. A free piece of advice: Pace yourselves. The week isn’t even finished!
This struck me as a simple way to begin back in January. Legislators listen to the voters who elect them — a tiny minority of the state population — rather than representing everyone. Those local voters could cost them reelection, after all.
Two: They want your body
Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature want to control your body and the bodies of your children.
This new invasion of the body snatchers has played out across the last year or more in state politics, as those who claim to lead a party once dedicated to individual rights abandoned its rich history. GOP bigwigs now tout legislation that would criminalize gender-affirming care for those under age 21. That means barring parents and doctors from caring for children and teens in the best way possible. That comes mere months after a statewide abortion vote that would have allowed these same leaders to pass bills controlling women’s bodies.
You couldn’t watch how legislators behaved when it came to abortion and transgender rights without wondering how they felt about constituents’ bodily autonomy. They sure seemed interested in their fellow Kansans’ private and personal medical decisions.
Three: They serve the rich and powerful
Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins would likely count the 2023 session a success if their breathtakingly expensive 5% flat tax passes. Bills discriminating against the LGBTQ community and transgender kids might as well evaporate as long as the filthy rich manage to grow filthier and richer.
Yes, legislators excel at this “look at one hand, not the other” trickery. But I’m no longer convinced the analysis explains what we see in Topeka — or in capitals across the United States. And I’m not sure it ever explained as much as we thought it did.
Masterson labored throughout this session to deliver a flat tax. His failure shouldn’t obscure the fact that such economic policy benefits the wealthy. Those same wealthy folks cut checks to his party, and they don’t care about social issues because they can always take a private jet to a state or country where abortion is safe and legal.
Four: They lie to themselves
The Kansas Legislature and its leaders seem to believe if they close their eyes tight enough and sing to themselves loud enough, the real world will go away.
This session, they have tried repeatedly to deny our state’s problems. Their policy preferences hinge on a make-believe world, one in which the Ogallala Aquifer gushes with water, trickle-down economics works, women refuse abortions and transgender people don’t exist.
I like this explanation but not the column I wrote. Legislators took some (albeit small) steps to address the state’s water crisis, so they deserve credit.
Five: They’re filled with all-consuming rage
I am a Kansas state legislator, and I am furious.
I am mad because there are abortions and students are attending public schools. I am mad because there are transgender people and drag shows. I am mad about our progressive tax system. I am mad because society indoctrinates our children with a radical woke agenda.
You would think that my party holding a supermajority in the House and Senate would soothe that anger, but somehow it just makes me more irate.
Readers enjoyed this look into the brain of a Republican legislator. I wondered if it might read as a cheap shot, but clearly some elected officials fuel themselves with raw, uncut anger. How would living this way, seeing conspiracies around every corner, affect one’s mental health? I leave that imagining up to you.
Six: Leaders manipulate their chambers for bad outcomes
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.
We could have an open, transparent process in the House and Senate. We don’t because chamber leaders understand that crowding all their business into the final few days allow them to exert maximum pressure on their caucus. The people of Kansas suffer the consequences.
Seven: They just want to burn everything down
These folks are not Republicans, at least not the kind our country has known and occasionally loved for decades. They aren’t sensible, coherent leaders with a penchant for fiscal responsibility and traditional values. They aren’t pragmatic partners with whom one can sit down and hash out a compromise.
These are arsonists.
No explanation needed here.
Eight: We have met the enemy, and he is us
Time for some tough talk.
The people who bear ultimate responsibility for the wretchedness of the 2023 Kansas legislative session are this state’s voters. They elected these men and women to public office. They allowed themselves to be swayed by misleading mailers, reprehensible radio spots and crackpot cable television.
Yes, many folks turned out to vote for more thoughtful candidates. But until lawmakers know they will pay a price for sessions like the one we just experienced, they have no reason to do better. Until political parties see a reason to fear losing power, they have no reason to shift their approach. And until the public descends upon the Statehouse every day of the session to make its will crystal clear, those in charge will take every opportunity to make deals in the darkness.
Kansas can do better. Kansas will do better. I still believe, as I always have, that the people of this state care deeply about others and building a better future.
They have to say so, however, and loudly.
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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