TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers are working to finalize last-minute deals on the state budget, a reduction of the state sales tax on food, sports wagering, a parental bill of rights, transgender athletes, and a wide range of other legislation before adjourning for a three-week break.
The rush toward the finish line — complicated by revelations of an ethics investigation and accusations of “pay-to-play politics” — includes an attempt to oust the state ethics commissioner and extend Medicaid contracts. Friday is the final scheduled day of the regular session.
Republicans planned to take action without support from Democrats on a plan to gradually phase out the state’s 6.5% sales tax on food, rather than eliminate it immediately as called for by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Republicans have questioned whether the state could afford the $402 million reduction in annual state revenue after passing a massive tax incentive package for a mystery company project and planning to funnel more than a billion dollars into the state pension system.
Republicans also planned to move forward with controversial legislation providing a bill of rights for parents of public school students, banning transgender athletes from playing girls’ sports, and restricting the use of drop boxes for advanced voting.
Lawmakers made progress on legislation to legalize in-person and online sports gambling.
Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, persuaded his Senate counterparts to accept the House position that bets be limited to professional, collegiate and Olympic activities. Barker said the restriction “keeps the high schools out of it.”
“Just don’t want anybody betting on my grandson’s soccer game,” Barker said. “He’s not a very good player. But he’s young. And if he’s listening, I’m only joking.”
Democrats raised concerns about subpoenas issued by the ethics commission, confirmed by the Kansas Chamber, as Republicans pursued a rule change that would require the ethics commissioner to be a licensed attorney, effectively disqualifying current executive director Mark Skoglund from proceeding with any investigation.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said he was troubled by the “stench” of pay-to-play politics evident in the subpoenas and an attempt by Republicans to offer no-bid contract extensions to managed care organizations.
“We don’t want to live in this Capitol or in this state under the power of pay to play politics,” Carmichael said.
The House adopted legislation granting broad legal immunity to medical care providers, while the Senate passed packages of legislation dealing with lawsuit advertisements, student employment, mail theft, privacy for nonprofit supporters, fingerprints, search warrants, specialty courts, drunk flying and child abuse.
Meanwhile, the governor signed into law a dozen bills that passed earlier in the session. They include legislation authorizing a memorial for Kansas Gold Star families on the Statehouse grounds.
‘Just do one good thing’
The House narrowly passed a bundle of bills extending and expanding until Jan. 20, 2023, pandemic-related policies for health care providers over bipartisan objections about expanding immunity for hospitals and nursing homes.
The package now contained in Senate Bill 286 also expands the use of telemedicine, relaxes qualifications for some health care workers, and strengthens penalties for interfering with hospital conduct or battery of a health care provider.
“As I talk to friends on both sides of the aisle in this chamber,” said Rep. Linda Featherston, D-Overland Park, “I hear the phrase a lot: ‘Can’t we just do one good thing without messing it up?’ Can we not just stand for the people and for what is right once, without linking it to something that causes so many of us distress?”
Featherston and other Democrats supported protections for health care workers but objected to having that provision “held hostage,” as Carmichael put it, by Republican leaders who hoped to leverage support for other provisions.
Carmichael said the Kansas Hospital Association requested expanded immunity out of concern that hospitals would be sued over decisions on ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and vaccination status.
“Many lawyers much brighter than I am actually believe that those tweaks may have expanded the immunity given to hospitals and other health care providers to the extent that it goes far beyond even COVID-related matters, and could result in essence in a prohibition against most medical malpractice litigation for injured patients over the next 10 months,” he said.
Several Republicans opposed the package after expressing concerns about access to ivermectin — which studies repeatedly show provides no benefit to preventing or treating COVID-19, the disease that has killed 8,397 Kansans and sickened one-fourth of the state’s population in the past two years.
Rep. Michael Houser, R-Columbus, described his personal battle with the virus.
Houser falsely claimed ivermectin has been proven to lessen disease “from taking you down” and said he couldn’t find a doctor in all of Cherokee County who would give him the drug. Houser said he was told “we can’t give that to you” because it was against hospital protocol.
“I firmly believe that if I had not fallen through that gap, and I’d had somebody that would that would prescribe that for me early on in the stage, I wouldn’t have missed three weeks of session, and I still wouldn’t be huffing and puffing when I walk from my truck to the elevator,” Houser said.
The House passed the bill by a 64-51 vote following a procedural move in which Featherston was forced to cast a vote or risk reprimand that could include expulsion. She reluctantly voted in favor of the measure.
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
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The Lawrence Times reposts many, but not all, stories from the Kansas Reflector. Read more of their coverage here. We also frequently repost stories from the Kansas News Service. Read more of their coverage here.