Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican-led Kansas Legislature tangled over many issues in 2023 session — there were more than a dozen veto showdowns — and led to implementation Saturday of 77 new state laws, including a measure altering criminal and civil procedure in sex abuse cases. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Jay Schumacher was locked up at the Ellis County Jail on a charge of first-degree murder in the slaying of his wife, but under Kansas law could spend the couple’s assets while awaiting trial for offenses capable of sending him to prison for decades.
A loophole in the state’s so-called slayer law compelled Jeremiah Schumacher, the son of alleged perpetrator Jay and domestic violence victim Karen, to plead with the 2023 Kansas Legislature to adopt a statute to prevent distribution of assets until resolution of criminal proceedings involving anyone arrested or charged with killing a person sharing financial interest in an estate.
Under Kansas law in place at time of the March 2022 slaying, alleged perpetrators could procure estate assets until convicted of killing someone.
“He’s arrested for the murder of his spouse,” Jeremiah Schumacher told lawmakers days after the session began in January. “I can’t wrap my head around it.”
Gov. Laura Kelly as well as the Senate and House heard his plea. The House vote on House Bill 2027 was 123-0. The Senate paired that with a 40-0 vote. The law signed by Kelly allowed as of July 1 a court to block sale, distribution, spending or other use of a decedent’s assets by a person arrested or charged in that killing. That order must stand until charges were dismissed, the accused was acquitted or convicted, and if records were expunged.
“This change is necessary, reasonable and will close what amounts to a loophole in the slayer provision of Kansas probate law by limiting those individuals, who kill a spouse or person from whom they will inherit, from receiving those proceeds,” said Hays attorney Chris McGowne.
The amended slayer law was among 77 bills — three fourths of the total to survive the legislative process in 2023 — scheduled to become effective on Saturday. The 21 others went live promptly rather than await the first day of July. The new roster of laws delve into abortion, concealed guns, elections, clergy abuse, public health, retirement investments, food stamps, transgender rights, water, smoking, utilities and sports.
‘Just that — fairness’
Republicans in the Legislature tangled with Democrats and the governor on merits of the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, otherwise known as House Bill 2238. It was designed to forbid transgender girls or women from participating in girls or women school sports. The anti-transgender bill easily cleared the GOP-led Legislature, but was vetoed by Kelly. Both chambers were able to override her veto.
The law required interscholastic, intercollegiate, intramural and club athletic teams sponsored by public or private educational entities to group players on teams of boys or men, girls or women or on separate coeducational units based on “biological sex” of athletes. It covered sports teams from kindergarten through college.
“The fairness in women’s sports act is just that — fairness,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover. “It simply sets guidelines that ensure the fair playing field continues for women and girls that we have recognized for decades.”
The Kansas State High School Activities Association established a policy requiring participants to present a copy of their first birth certificate to verify the gender declaration at birth.
Test-strip ban lifted
Initially, the idea of decriminalizing possession of test strips to detect the synthetic opioid fentanyl didn’t gain much political traction at the statehouse. For three years, the prevailing legislative sentiment was Senate Bill 174 and others like it sent the wrong message to people using drugs illegally.
Advocates for the change pointed with alarm to the rising death toll among Kansans who unknowingly consumed drugs blended with fentanyl, which could be 50 to 100 times as potent as morphine.
Kelly, looking for ways to prevent overdose poisonings and fatalities, signed the bipartisan bill removing test strips from the state’s list of illegal drug paraphernalia. At the same time, the penalty for manufacture and distribution of fentanyl-laced substances was heightened.
Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said the agonizing wait for adoption of the legislation meant the values of kindness and compassion prevailed in the end.
“By decriminalizing fentanyl testing strips,” Probst said, “we are helping Kansans protect themselves from a deadly poison that has taken far too many lives, including the tragic and profoundly painful loss of far too many teenagers and young adults in our state.”
The contents of Senate Bill 180 also become law July 1, but conflict over interpretations of the statute could drag on for months or years.
The measure labeled by supporters as the Women’s Bill of Rights aimed to define biological sex as the determinant for use of restrooms, domestic violence shelters, locker rooms and correctional facilities. It didn’t contain enforcement mechanisms, leaving open questions about how the bill would operate in the real world outside the Capitol bubble.
Kelly vetoed the bill, but the House and Senate had votes to override the governor. Attorney General Kris Kobach issued a nonbinding legal opinion declaring new Kansas licenses to drive and birth certificates had to reflect gender at birth. At the same time, he said, the identification documents revised in the past to address transgender residents of Kansas had to be reissued to reflect an individual’s determination of sex at birth.
The ACLU of Kansas and the governor disagreed with the Republican attorney general, and contended the law couldn’t impact public accommodations because it didn’t include an enforcement mechanism. Kelly said state agencies would continue to allow transgender individuals to change gender markers on driver’s licenses and birth certificates.
“KDHE and KDOR disagree about its impacts on their operations and will instead keep in place their policies regarding gender markers on birth certificates and driver’s licenses,” Kelly said.
Kobach, who lost the 2018 general election for governor against Kelly, said he would proceed with a legal challenge of the governor’s decision.
State salaries, pensions
The launch of a new fiscal year July 1 coincided with implementation of salary adjustments for state government employees. The package adopted by the Legislature and embraced by the governor linked pay increases to market rates for comparable job classifications in the private sector.
State workers 10% below peers in that occupational field would be brought up to that 10% figure or given a 5% adjustment. Personnel earning above 10% of the market rate would receive a 2.5% increase. Those less than 10% below market or 10% above market would qualify for a 5% raise.
Meanwhile, the Legislature pushed through a bill forbidding trustees of the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System from making investment decisions based on principles of ESG. It stands for environmental, social and corporate governance considerations relied on by investors and often associated with liberal political causes.
Majorities in the Legislature said KPERS should manage its $20 billion portfolio to bring about the highest return on investment with the least risk.
Kobach, who lobbied for passage of the reform, said it was wrong to enable corporate intruders to jeopardize pensions of state government workers, teachers and law enforcement officers.
“ESG investing uses retirement savings as leverage to force companies to reduce their carbon footprints, adopt racial and gender quotas or to succumb to the ‘woke’ social justice fad of the month,” he said.
Revise and extend
After years of debate, a bipartisan coalition of Kansas lawmakers agreed to make it easier for victims of childhood sexual assault to make a case in court.
House Bill 2027, which received unanimous support in the Senate and House, dropped the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of the alleged crimes and extended by 10 years the opportunity to file lawsuits against alleged perpetrators.
Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said persistence of a group of survivors made the difference.
“This is breakthrough legislation that will keep our children and communities safer by permitting our state to get more predators off our streets, while building a foundation to allow more survivors of childhood sexual violence to pursue justice,” she said.
Previous Kansas law dictated criminal cases had to be filed within five years of the alleged crime. Cases of rape carried a 10-year statute of limitations once a person alleging harm turned 18. In civil cases, the suit had to be filed by the time a victim turned 21 years of age.
The grab bag
Turn of the calendar to July also enabled implementation of a law requiring groundwater management districts to produce for the Legislature annual reports on water usage and to develop strategies for conserving a resource made scarce by drought and heavy reliance on the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation.
Conservative legislators pushed through eligibility reform in the state’s food stamp program, technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The new Kansas mandate required people 50 to 59 years of age without dependents to work 30 hours a week or participate in job training initiatives to qualify for food aid.
In divorce cases, Kansans would now be permitted to change a last name to something other than a maiden name or former name.
Election laws were modified to open the door to a presidential preference primary in March 2024.
The cluster of abortion reforms include a law requiring health professionals to perform life-saving care when an infant was was born alive during an abortion. In 2022, Kansas doctors reported no such instances of live birth. Organizations opposed to abortion, a right protected in Kansas by the state constitution, pointed to examples of failed abortions in other states. Kelly vetoed the measure but was overridden.
In addition, state lawmakers earmarked $2 million to support activities of anti-abortion centers that would be scattered across Kansas.
Legislators and the governor agreed the state should limit how much public utility companies could recover through rate increases when making investments in new electricity transmission lines.
The $100 fee paid to the attorney general’s office to obtain a concealed weapon license in Kansas was eliminated, but left in place a charge of $32.50 payable to a county sheriff’s department. Individuals as young as 18 can receive a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
But lawmakers passed a law declaring only individuals 21 years of age or older were mature enough to purchase, possess or consume tobacco products. Until Saturday, those 18 or older could buy cigarettes.
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