The Kansas legislature's regular session for 2023, wrapped up Friday morning at about 4:20am with a marathon sprint of legislating that included debates about budget, taxes, public education, transgender students, and so much more. Welcome to this week's Kansas reflector podcast. My name is Clay Firestone. And I'm the reflectors opinion editor to discuss the whirlwind close to the session and the laws that were made or unmade. I'm joined by editor Sherman Smith, senior reporter, Tim Carpenter, and reporter Rachel KnitPro. Hello to all of you
a little clay.
It's good to be here.
Thanks for having us.
So let's start with the end, so to speak, for 20 or so in the morning, close to the session, things got a little loopy, or so I hear.
You know, if we sound cranky on this podcast, it's because we're tired. And there's no good reason for them to do business this way. Final 48 hours of the session, it's you know, every two hours, they come back on the floor. Here's seven more unholy bundles of backroom deals that we've thrown together, and nobody's had a chance to read vote on those. And they come back two hours later and do it all again.
This has been a regular feature of the legislature for many years. And the idea is you get late at night into the session, lawmakers want to go home, you put immense pressure on them to vote for bills. Now rank and file people don't like it. They don't like it. This is not how the Son does not what they signed up for. However, the people that do are the people in legislative leadership. And because this makes legislating from their perspective a lot easier. Well,
and it's my understanding, at least, that this makes it makes the entire first part of the session sometimes irrelevant. Like they've spent literally weeks and weeks listening to discussion about bills, having hearings doing all of this committee work. And so much of that work is is undone. And just these final few hours
are the early part of the session. Honestly, this is a tradition, it's a very long cocktail bar and buffet line. That's what they do for a couple of weeks when they get here. And there has always been this push are the most substantive things at the end the budget or a tax bill. But the problem is not just that, and having those discussions at three o'clock in the afternoon. It's having 15 bills after midnight, it's taking 20 bills and cramming it into one and expecting people legislators and the public impossible to figure out what the heck is going on.
So actually, in talking about some of the specific issues this session, Sherman, let's start with some of those bills that were bundled together towards the end. And that was a big batch of tax policy that passed.
Yeah, House and Senate finally came together and worked out a deal on a flat tax, something they've talked about all session. This one is a little bit more mild than other plans, but it would still cost about 330 million a year. And as as a reduction in the individual income tax that people pay. Almost all of that coming from the higher wage earners in this bracket structure. Kansas right now has a three tier system based on your income level, so there would be a flat tax. But to try to get Democrats on board, they added some other things into that. That includes accelerating when the food sales tax would come to an end. That would happen now January 1 of next year instead of January 1 of 2025. It also includes some property tax relief, the Democrats wanted you right now your first 40,000 of property tax value is exempt this would raise that to 60,000. And then the standard deduction on your individual in tax income tax forms would increase every year. By a the rate of inflation there'd be a cost of living adjustment on that. There's a little bit more of an exemption on Social Security income that raises from 75,000 to 100,000. Terms of the income that's exempt. And then they also accelerate the corporate income tax cuts that are associated with these mega projects have incentives that they've given to Panasonic to create a battery plant in DeSoto. And then Integra is a computer chip manufacture down in Wichita. Under those deals. It was going to trigger a statewide corporate income tax deduction, a huge decrease of a half a percent. They went ahead and just put those two half percents together at a lowered immediately instead of waiting to do that, Sherman,
I presume that the governor has been involved in behind closed door talks about this kind of stuff.
You know, it's it's always a mystery. But then, you know, Vic Miller, the House Minority Leader came out on the floor before voting on this last night. And he said, You know, I, I went out on a limb here and voted for an earlier version of this that Democrats in the House put together and half the caucus supported. He said, I did that, even though the governor told me not to vote for this. But I thought it was the best deal we were going to get. And I think I was right. What we ended up with now is not something that he could support. And so he voted against it. All of the Democrats voted against it. Except for a course the Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, Marvin Robinson, who is now voting with Republicans on virtually everything, and and
more on him a non. So Rachel, I feel like for the entirety of this session, we have heard really heated debates about education, funding, education policy, we've heard about vouchers, all of all of those kinds of things. And yet, for folks who are expecting something big to come from that late on Thursday or early Friday, not much happened. So tell us tell us what happened. Tell us tell us about that,
oh, we're gonna start with a bill that didn't get through first, that would be K through 12 education funding for the next three years. That bill was bundled together with about nine other bills. It was a massive, massive piece of legislation. So ultimately, legislators in both chambers decided not to go anywhere with that. So we're still going to be looking for K through 12 education funding, which is fairly important, some would say, but the one that was super debated today, throughout the night was a voucher program that would allow unregulated private schools to receive state funding, it would also put federal COVID 19 relief funds towards special education. So this narrowly passed the house and it completely flopped in the Senate. And this was all discussed in the wee hours of Friday morning, like, we were seeing a lot of heated debate over public school versus private education, which has been a huge factor this entire session. Some people have said that teachers have been vilified. And they're saying like stuff like, Oh, why don't we do funding public education and supporting private schools. But that voucher program did fail, we're still on the lookout for K through 12 education funding.
And that's going to be something they have to take up when they return on April 26, through the veto session,
but there's a Supreme Court mandates to fully fund and equitably fund public schools. Unlike past rounds of litigation, the Supreme Court a couple of years ago said we're hanging on to this to make sure you really stick with it. One of the plans that's out there was actually going to cut school funding by a couple 100 million dollars, which would clearly land them back in front of the Supreme Court. You know, the the other thing about this voucher program that they were looking at is, you know, they talked about this a school choice, but it was hard to see what choice it really offered to students. Most of the money associated with this was going to students who are already in private schools, or to to reward the people who pulled their kids out of schools, your concerns about vaccines, or, you know, books they didn't like in the library, I guess, because it applied to homeschooling. And I think that about half the counties in Kansas, there wasn't even there's not even a private school that you could choose to go to. And I think it was some of the rural Republicans out there who realized that this is going to be very detrimental to the public schools in their area. And that helped torpedo this.
Rachel, I have to say I was surprised and reading your coverage. Like there's some real bone deep hostility towards public schools from some of these legislators. Like they they're saying some things that just really, I mean, I was raising my eyebrows.
Yeah. When the midnight debate, we saw a lot of I think your direct quote was that public schools are failing, like it's a failing system. Right now, public school teachers are failing the kids. And some people have pushed back on that, because they're seeing the Brownback tax experiment, and all that really defunded schools over the last course of years.
But there's another element to this, all of the public school students undergo standardized testing. And a lot of these kids that would go to private schools or homeschooling and receive some of this voucher money wouldn't necessarily take standardized exams to know whether or not they're receiving a quality education. So it's apples and oranges. And if you're complaining about the public schools, you're never going to get a proper comparison down the road if this kind of legislation would pass. I'm gonna make one other point about the this is an example of the session is not over until it's over. Because this was the end of the regular part of the session, but they push they used to just use the end of the wrap up to deal with Governor vetoes. But now they got substantive bills that they're going to have to deal with. We've got public school education, we've got they pushed to the end, whether or not they're going to give stadium Louise raises and just big budget issues that are going to come at the very end. I just want to make note of that.
Sure. And and, Tim, to follow up with you. I think Kansans everyone across the country was watching last summer as a Kansans turned out in droves to reject an anti abortion amendment to the Kansas constitution. But that certainly wasn't the end of the discussion about abortion. And it was that topic came up in several bills this session. So what happened there?
That's right. That's right. Last August, Kansas voters widely concluded they didn't want to amend the Constitution to give lawmakers the opportunity to ban abortion outright in Kansas. They want abortion regulated, but not banned. So you think maybe some of the advocates and abortion advocates might sit back on in their rocking chair and kind of take it easy this session, not true. They came back full bore. And there are three bills that have passed the legislature that could be viewed as anti abortion. One of them is called the born alive, Bill put that in quote marks. It's where doctors in Kansas would face civil lawsuits and criminal complaints. So they didn't provide emergency care of fetuses, quote, unquote, born alive in botched abortions. Another bill deals with these anti abortion clinics or centers that have cropped up in Kansas, they would be included in a state, a state insurance pool, provide liability insurance for them, and abortion clinics or providers that do engage in abortion would no longer be eligible for that pool. And finally, the last bit of abortion legislation just passed is called the pill reversal bill. And under this abortion opponents want to require abortion providers to tell patients that are taking a medication that would end a pregnancy, that it's a two pill regimen, that in the middle of this after taking one pill apparently, this is a suggestion that they could stop that process and quote unquote reverse an abortion, this idea has been debunked by medical professionals across the country. And there's just suggestion that this approach by intervening in this process could actually harm women. So you can see from these three bills that the anti abortion activists and lobbyists haven't given up, and they they sort of heard what voters said last August, but they're gonna come back for more.
You know, I think the language in these bills and these issues are always loaded. They talked about the born alive situation, not because I think many people actually believe this is happening with it, you know, as a real issue. I think it's about pushing this narrative that women are aborting babies that could otherwise live outside of the womb. And it's just not true. The language
of these abortion bills is is there for purpose, it's to make all aspects of abortion no matter the situation, to be this hideous thing that should never occur.
You know, most of the abortions in Kansas happen very early in a pregnancy. It's with the abortion pill. These are largely women who have had a child before. I mean, a lot of the narratives around this are just based on things that aren't true.
Clay, you mentioned litigation, the Kansas Supreme Court found in the states Bill of Rights, a foundational element. And that is people had the right to bodily autonomy, which they interpreted as meaning abortion, they had the right to end it women had a right to enter pregnancy. So you could easily on these three bills, have more litigation, get these cases back before the Supreme Court. Attorney General Kris Kobach did exactly that. He got he lined up oral arguments on on some some abortion laws. And he's the new attorney general. And he wanted to take a crack at it. He met a very skeptical skeptical Kansas Supreme Court.
And all of this feeds the narrative that we hear from Republicans that this is the act of his courts, and they need to have control over regulating abortion, and they're being denied this opportunity to regulate and make the practice safe.
Yeah, the tension between three branches of government, it's never gonna go away. And I actually think it's a good thing.
So Sherman, one of the things that we've been asked as reflect our staff occasionally when we go out is, is there anything that gives you hope? Is there any good news that's coming out of the state house, you've done? written several stories about something that actually ended up being a somewhat more hopeful and positive story out of the state house this year?
I think if there's a set of heroes or champions for this session, it is these women who were child sex abuse survivors who camped out at the statehouse, you know, day after day, week after week all session long talking to legislators, trying to find a compromise on a bill that would allow other women, other other men and women, other survivors of child sex abuse, like them to file civil lawsuits and criminal cases, against their attackers against their tormentors. Kansas law previously, it's at the age of 21. Once you turned 21, you were unable to pursue litigation. This bill raises it at least 10 years now to 31 for civil cases and removes the statute of limitations for criminal charges. And it's a huge win for them. It's a win that I think a lot of people were skeptical of, because of the the influence of the Catholic Church was frankly, stands to lose a lot of cases if some of these things are opened up. But it shows I think, the there's still real power in people from Kansas telling personal stories, individuals who are not associated with lobbying groups, big money of special interests, just everyday Kansans, you can come to the statehouse, and just their presence, their their persistence, makes a difference.
Well, and I think it's important, Sherman, to to note that there were a couple of things they did in the way that they talked about this issue and the way that they pursued it, that I think served them very well, this session. One of them was they explicitly even though, you know, you rightly identified the Catholic Church as an interested party to this bill, they repeated that this was not about any particular church, this was not about any particular organization. This was about preventing pedophiles from getting away with harming children. And noting, for example, that a lot of childhood sexual abuse just happens in families. You know, that was the story of of, you know, some of the several of the survivors who spoke,
you know, for the, you know, this idea that it's, it's not the scary man in the alley, or in the dark woods, who leaps out and grabs you. These are people who are embedded in our communities in any number of ways. It certainly is not limited to the Catholic Church, it is coaches, it is family members, anybody who is in a position to to have regular access to children. They wanted to make that very clear, you know, the Church provided a hurdle, because they have a lot of influence in the legislature. But it is certainly not limited to them.
And then, of course, there was also the report that was issued by departing Attorney General Eric Schmidt on his last full day in office. That mentioned it was kind of a summary of the KBI report into clergy sexual abuse, and identified that there had been at least 400 survivors that they had identified in Kansas since 1950. I believe in some 200 clergy that they were had looked at, and it didn't name any names. But I think that surprised a lot of people
it's in survivors pointed to this as an opportunity to really gain some attention for this issue, because there's, there's a belief sometimes I think that these are isolated incidents, just maybe one bad apple here and there, it made it clear that we're talking about hundreds of predators over the course of 50 years.
Well, in the end, I know that even when I was talking to some of the survivors, for some of my columns, they also just see this as a first step. They want to have, ultimately unlimited civil liability, which some other states have.
Yeah, they've had to educate people, I think, on this that the average age of disclosure, typically is survivors in their 50s. Before they're comfortable talking about this, since putting the age of 31 is not ideal, but it's a step in the right direction for them. Sure.
So Rachel, from a from an outcome that you know, a lot of advocates were happy about to one that has been to to an array of bills that has been very challenging for some folks who've shown up at the at the statehouse, want to talk about bills affecting the LGBTQ plus community, transgender folks, and specifically in particular, so what can you tell us about that? Well, this
was not a really good week for LGBTQ rights across the state of Kansas. We'll start with Wednesday's transgender student athlete ban. The legislature was able to successfully override Governor Kelly's veto of this but basically this would affect only one student that we know of in the upcoming school year, and this would be in effect for kindergarten through college. It would basically ban all transgender girls from playing on sports teams through these levels. And advocates have said this is a terrible idea for many reasons. Legislature decided to pass that then Thursday night. crossing over into Friday morning, we saw a different bill go through that one was completely read for the first time in the house that night and it was discussed around 2am. This one would have been gender affirming care for anyone under the ages of 18 across the state of Kansas effectively, it will revoke arm decisions license for performing gender affirming care. So overall, yeah, I would say it's not a super good week for LGBTQ rights, including one one woman's Bill of Rights, which is including like a lot of language that some find objectionable.
I think the Bill of Rights aims to define women very narrowly in a way to prevent transgender women from being in bathrooms, locker rooms in a public space with them. You I think you've heard from a number of members of the LGBTQ community what, how are they reacting to these bills?
Not Well, I mean, I've been getting texts all morning saying this is heartbreaking. This is gut wrenching, that sort of thing. Many find this to be a huge setback. I mean, if you look at the testimony from yesterday, Representative Meyers, who's got like a transgender child herself was almost in tears at the thought of this. There was a protest or not really protest, but some, like lawmakers on the House floor stood up to kind of talk about this when it was being passed the first time around. We saw rep Heather Meyer display heard protect trans youth t shirt on the House floor. And another lawmaker yelled. We will see an expletive at a different lawmaker. She felt they were gloating. And we heard allegedly that some Republican lawmakers were laughing while they passed this.
So go ahead. No, I was just gonna say that. With the opponents of this legislation, Governor Kelly stands with them. And she's vetoed this kind of legislation for and I wouldn't be terribly surprised she did again, she did indeed say it was heartbreaking. She also indicated that legislators who voted for this would likely look back on this moment in their legislative career and regret it because I think she believes eventually, they'll be able to see hard evidence of the damage done.
Well, and it's important to note that, at least for the transgender athletes ban bill, that this was the matter really in the House of Representatives in the override of one vote, that there was one Democratic representative who we've mentioned already today, who voted with the voted with the majority, and allowed the governor's veto to be overridden and the bill to become law if he had voted differently, the bill would not have become a common law. So let's, let's talk a little bit about representative Robinson for a second.
Representative Marvin Robinson from Kansas City, Kansas. I know a lot of Democrats are furious that he seems to have flipped his allegiance here. But I would just point out that there were two Republicans who voted with Democrats as well. And there were 83 other Republicans who voted for this override. It's a little I think, Odd. Odd to say that sticking with the party is the measuring stick, I think there are 84 people to blame. If you are unhappy with this override,
it always puzzles me when those party line of votes occur. Surely, out of 85, whatever House members, there's a handful that would vote for Democrats if left to their own devices, but they get leadership twisting their arms and you end up with the straight party line votes. And so when that doesn't happen in these extraordinary cases, people comment on it. But I think it should be just a matter of routine. We it can't be so lockstep not Republicans, not Democrats, it can't be.
Well, let's look at the amount of time that was spent on this sort of legislation compared to stuff like tax plans and everything. That's one of the major critics we've heard about that is that they've been devoting a lot of time to things like this sort of trends, athlete ban that would affect one student next year. And instead of like focusing on K through 12, education, or tax policies, this is what they've chosen to choose, like
a legislation that gins up the voter base and gets people excited. Maybe they go vote, you know, there's there's I don't know if there's good evidence that it works.
We've been doing these town halls around the state where we're taking questions from everyday Kansans, who read our stories. And I think in those and just in talking to people, you get the sense of things that people really care about in their personal lives, you know, they people want Medicaid expansion, they want access to affordable housing, they want medical marijuana to pass. They are concerned about water issues. Education Funding has been huge as well. Yes. You know, nobody says, you know, the thing that's really most important in my life is that I make sure that no transgender children are playing with other children. Nobody says you know, I really would like to see more funding taken away from my public school and put put into a private school. You know, nobody, nobody says they they want what the legislature is doing on a lot of these issues they have other needs.
The image I get in my mind is a kindergartener who's lining up to kick a soccer ball and suddenly gets yanked out of line and drugged off by the principal. And, and is going to go get some sort of test to determine gender at birth. I mean, I think it's horrifying.
Right? Yeah. Well, and I think you we've seen already and just the aftermath to the trans athletes bill passing, that some of that backlash has already begun. Speaker Dan Hawkins put out a statement denying that any such you know, inspections would be would be the case. But, you know, when you pass, you know, very broad legislation that doesn't include a lot of specifics about applications as as this law was. People just you kind of have to figure out as you go along what is going to actually mean, and I don't think we do entirely. So
be clear. This is model legislation that was written by faith based groups that hates the LGBTQ community. I don't think they were particularly interested in governing.
Indeed. So, Tim, one of the things that caught your eye was a bit of back and forth about whether or not Kansas should have a presidential primary.
Yeah, so it turns out after a bunch of wrangling, the House and Senate did send Governor Kelly, a bill that would have created a situation in which Kansas would have a presidential preference primary in March of 2024. Right now, Kansas has a caucus system. This is where everybody gets together and some meeting hall at on a Sunday afternoon, and they all get in groups, and they give speeches, and eventually you end up with a winner when the votes are counted, this would be more like a regular election. This would be a one time one issue election next March. And it would cost four to $5 million. That's one of the negatives to it. Others who don't think it's a good idea suggests that Kansas is sort of irrelevant in this natural national political contest. Now, the people who think it's a great idea, don't worry about the cost. They think it would dramatically increase voter participation, because people would be more accustomed to voting on a Tuesday, and they could go for for their presidential preference. I think one of the keys to this legislation was that President Trump, in 2016, lost the Kansas Republican caucus to US Senator Ted Cruz. And if he's running for president again, and rolls into Kansas, he wants he wants to win Kansas, because in two statewide elections, he carry Kansas easily. So the caucus system, maybe not friendly to Donald Trump. And maybe this straight up election on a presidential primary would be,
I was just gonna say in 2020, Joe Biden broke 40% in Kansas. So there's also some evidence that you're seeing some swing voters in places in Kansas, more going for Democrats. So there's also just the question of it's not so much will the Republican win or not, the Republican will almost certainly win. But what is the what is the margin? And what's embarrassing or not? Well, keep
in mind, these presidential preference primaries are run by the Republican and Democratic parties. And so each part respective party will be picking their top choice. And so, you know, if Trump and Biden are in this, I presume that's we're going to spend $4 million anointing them,
right. Well, one of the things I would like to say here is, as we wrap up today, is that we have at the reflector, a shared company, as it were a Slack account, when I get to see folks sending messages from the Statehouse every day and every night. And one of the things that has just amazed and delighted me over these last few weeks is just seeing how much effort how much time how much work everyone on the staff puts in to covering the legislature especially as we get to these long and grueling days towards the end of the session, and I am great fans of all of your work. So thank you so much for coming to talk about kind of you to say thank you