Kansas legislative session promises more debate on COVID-19 and critical race theory

TOPEKA – As Kansas lawmakers converge in Topeka on Monday to address issues related to the pervasive disease of COVID-19, election law and the state’s economic well-being, some advocates hope humanity, and not the political game, can shine in 2022.

An election year, mixed with public outcry over the handling of the pandemic, sets up a remarkable 2022 session. Expect talks on passing medical marijuana legislation, expanding Medicaid eligibility, critical race theory, repeal of sales tax on groceries and more in the months to come.

On top of that, lawmakers will attempt to redraw the boundaries of Kansas House, the Kansas Senate, and the United States House, a process that is sure to impact the elections and Kansas political landscape over the next few years. decade.

Leaders of Kansas Interfaith Action — a statewide, multi-faith advocacy organization — have urged lawmakers to serve everyone, not just a select few.

Pastor Robert Johnson is the principal servant of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita and a board member of Kansas Interfaith Action. (Submitted)

“I remain hopeful that if we go beyond the realms of power, the realm of politics, and the boundaries of political conversation, there can be enough compassion to do things like maintain a veto,” he said. Pastor Robert Johnson, the leader. servant of Saint Mark’s United Methodist Church in Wichita and board member of Kansas Interfaith Action, in an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast.

In 2021, 769 bills were introduced, and of these, 116 bills became law after approval by both houses and the governor. A total of 601 bills from last year, including a medical marijuana proposal passed by the House, will be carried over to the 2022 legislative session.

A new set of burning questions rises to the top, including critical race theory.

Despite repeated promises from state and local school board members that Kansas schools and teachers do not teach CRT, political pressure has brought the issue to the fore. Kansas Interfaith Action plans to oppose any legislation that would restrict a comprehensive view of Kansas and US history.

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the conversation was already not complete in most Kansas schools.

“What are you afraid of? You don’t really teach it anyway,” Rieber said. “What it really shows is there’s something to be proud of, you know — not the injustice, but the overcoming of injustice, which we have continually done throughout our history.”

A lack of comprehensive historical education, combined with political gambling, led to the ignorance on display in November ahead of the special session when a family opposed to COVID-19 mandates showed up wearing the Star of David, said Rieber.

“In theory, you could end up losing your job if you’re not vaccinated, but that’s not the same as being put in a cattle car,” Rieber said. “My story is not there for someone else’s political point.”

Governor Laura Kelly answers questions during a press conference on January 6, 2022 at the Statehouse in Topeka, where she announced a new declaration of emergency. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Special session again

Seek lawmakers to address unfinished business from the incendiary special session early, especially in light of a declaration of disaster recently signed by Governor Laura Kelly.

Possible coronavirus-related bills range from a removal of a private company’s power to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to a proposal adding COVID-19 vaccination status to the list prohibited forms of discrimination in employment – ​​as well as race, religion, color, sex, disability, ancestry, national origin and age. A measure prohibiting any form of “vaccination passport” was also discussed.

“I think looking at the next session … there will be conversations about going further, and what does that look like and how can we protect people more? How can we consider prohibiting mandates? said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican from Hesston who served on the select committee on government overreach, at the end of the November special session.

A proposal by Sen. Robert Olson, R-Olathe, to prevent employers from contributing to the state unemployment trust fund in the event of an increase in unemployment insurance claims did not make the object of the final bill during the extraordinary session. In 2022, it could find new life.

David Jordan, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, insisted that science and the advice of public health professionals should be the driving force behind legislation relating to COVID-19.

“We need to trust public health professionals, whether at the local level or within state agencies, to implement policies that we know work like masking, vaccination, and for us ensure that their efforts are not hampered by politics,” Jordan said.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer and Deputy Minority Leader Jason Probst announce three constitutional amendments to bring Medicaid expansion and recreational and medical marijuana to voters across the state. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Cannabis and Medicaid

Other efforts regarding Kansans’ health, such as the potential expansion of Medicaid or the legalization of some form of marijuana, are already underway. Three Kansas constitutional amendments recently proposed by House Democratic Leadership would see these matters put to a public vote.

Amendments to the state constitution — one to expand Medicaid, one to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, and one to legalize marijuana for recreational use — would ask the Legislature to create those policies by July 1. July 2023.

Before going to a public vote, the proposed amendments must be supported by two-thirds of both chambers. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer hoped that despite past deadlocks on these issues, allowing a vote could spark more conversations with Republicans.

“Republican leaders have actively blocked it at every turn,” the Wichita Democrat said. “It is time to start giving these things to the Kansans and letting them decide. … He asks Kansans, ‘Do you want the legislature to do this?’ If they vote yes, then the legislature will have to abide by the will of the voters.

If passed, the measures would be put to a public vote next November. Kansas is one of 12 states that have yet to expand Medicaid and three states that have yet to legalize marijuana in one form or another.

In 2021, the Kansas House passed a medical marijuana bill, but the Senate chose not to act, although it still could in 2022.

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab answers questions from reporters Monday after the Dec. 14, 2020, Electoral College vote in the House Chamber at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Elections and redistricting

The baseless allegations of voter fraud have raised concerns about the integrity of the elections and paved the way for further debate on the election law in 2022.

Last session, lawmakers approved a set of bills described by suffrage advocates as restrictive or unconstitutional. A series of legal actions against these measures are still ongoing.

In 2022, the Senate and House plan to deepen election integrity. Despite repeatedly saying Kansas elections are safe and secure, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab is seeking further changes to election law to combat so-called voter fraud.

Suggestions include changes to election audit processes, securing election materials and a recommendation to purge voters who skip two elections.

“By securing voting equipment, improving election audits and voter roll maintenance, Kansans can be confident that these simple changes will improve security without confusing voters,” Schwab said.

One issue that is sure to seep into the conversation about electoral law is redistricting, which could have a huge impact on future elections. The task of redrawing state maps to serve the interests of nearly 3 million Kansans must be completed by June to provide an orderly process for filing candidates.

The Republican Party has spoken openly of developing congressional districts that protect the interests of three incumbent GOP congressmen and undermine the re-election prospects of the state’s only Democrat in Washington, U.S. Representative Sharice Davids. The Democratic Party has the opposite goal.

Charley Crabtree, board member of the League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County, urged lawmakers to avoid legal and political trouble.

“Democracy is served when constituencies are drawn with respect for fairness and neighborhood integrity, when classes of voters are not targeted for suppression, and when those in power practice rule of gold of politics — that is, remembering that they won’t always be in power, at least not in a real democracy,” Crabtree said.

Rabbi Moti Rieber is executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, a statewide faith-based advocacy organization that “puts faith into action” on important social, economic and climate justice issues. He lives in Overland Park. (Submitted)

Help the starving Kansans

While the big issues will get much of the legislature’s attention, Johnson and Rieber are focused on ensuring the economic well-being of at-risk Kansans.

One of the focal points is the elimination of the state sales tax on food, which Governor and Attorney General Derek Schmidt proposed last year. According to Kelly’s proposal, estimates indicate that a family of four would save $500 on their grocery bill. Kelly estimated the loss of state revenue at $450 million.

“Here in the zip code I’m in, we’re in a food desert on top of sales tax, so food is expensive and healthy food is in short supply,” Johnson said. “If we get rid of the food sales tax, it will help the poorest Kansans a lot and give them a huge economic boost.”

Johnson is also looking into the predatory practice of payday loans, an issue that was discussed in legislative committees last year but never addressed in either chamber. He and Rieber said the payday loan industry and lobbyists had successfully crushed past coalitions proposing reform.

“When (colored and poor people in Kansas) are in trouble and we need a loan, we need financial resources, the only ones available that will lend us money are predatory loans” , Johnson said. “It can feel like the world is against you.”