Clay Wirestone: Statehouse scraps – Secrecy shrouds semiconductor deal, counting a community, silver screen plans (Column)

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Somehow we just wrapped the fourth week of the 2023 Kansas legislative session. Tracking lawmakers’ antics sometimes feels like pounding a half-dozen slushies and taking a ride on a tilt-a-whirl. The individual experiences might be fun, exhilarating even, but you need a cast-iron stomach to prevent the worst.

Like previous weeks, this one saw exceptionally troubling signs. We also enjoyed some good news, though, with the announcement of another high-tech megaproject coming to the state. So let’s dig in.

Semiconductor secrecy

Gov. Laura Kelly can pop another feather into her no-doubt-sensible cap with the announcement that Wichita-based Integra Technologies will spend nearly $2 billion to create 1,994 jobs and build a million-square-foot plant.

But like most things this session, the announcement came with its share of secrecy. The State Finance Council met in closed session to review and approve the deal. It includes $304 million in tax incentives, so you might think Kansans have a right to know the details before officials voted. You would have thought wrong.

When the Associated Press’ John Hanna lodged an objection, Kelly chief of staff Will Lawrence admonished him to sit back down. That’s interesting given that Lawrence doesn’t sit on the finance council.

Hanna deserves credit: He raised similar objections when the council went into private session to approve the Panasonic megadeal in July.

 Will Lawrence admonishes John Hanna at the State Finance Council meeting on Feb. 2, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Community counts

I wrote about state Sen. Mike Thompson’s ridiculous bill banning drag performances for children on Thursday. A reader wrote in to ask if we know the number of LGBTQ Kansans.

As a matter of fact, we have a decent guess. D.C. Hiegert, an attorney and the Skadden Foundation LGBTQ+ Fellow at the ACLU of Kansas, wrote a column for the Kansas Reflector opinion section last month that included estimates. According to Hiegert, “Kansas is home to more than 92,000 LGBTQ+ people, including an estimated 14,400 trans folks.”

In other words, if Kansas’ gay population were a city, it would be the seventh-largest in Kansas. As for the trans population, it’s twice the number of people who voted for Thompson in his 2020 primary contest against Tom Cox.

Big screen dreams

Speaking of Thompson’s bill, you have to wonder how folks behind a new film incentives proposal feel.

KCTV reported last month that the Senate Commerce Committee had introduced a $12 million bill to attract various kinds of media and film productions in the state. An organization called Grow Kansas Film has advocated for the investment, stating on its website that “Kansas is one of just a few states who do not offer film incentives to production companies, leaving Kansas uncompetitive in the market.”

Given the sums that lawmakers have tossed around for other pet projects (a ghastly $1.5 billion-a-year flat tax, for example), this seems to make sense. But what creative folks will want to work in Kansas if it becomes a beachhead of anti-gay legislation?

 State Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, has introduced a bill banning drag performances in front of minors. The bill would criminalize showing films like “Mrs. Doubtfire.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Voucher subterfuge

Scott Rothschild, communications editor for the Kansas Association of School Boards, shot off this particularly pungent tweet on Tuesday.

All too often, this is simply how the Statehouse works. Committee leaders don’t want full public debates on the bills they plan to pass. They hope for as few objections as possible, so they make sure that opponents to bills that would weaken public education (or progressive tax policy or individual rights) have as little time as possible to react. This has been done for years, so I’m sure that education advocates will have a healthy turnout Monday. But that doesn’t make it right.

Rep. Kristey Williams
August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Rep. Kristey Williams says expansion of a tax credit for private school scholarships would give Kansas children better educational opportunities. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Tracking bills

Kansas Reflector staff and opinion contributors often write about proposed legislation, but oftentimes they haven’t been officially entered into the legislative website when those pieces appear. So here are links for two recent bills of interest.

Senate Bill 95: “Permitting a prosecution for childhood sexual abuse to be commenced at any time, permitting victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring a civil action for recovery of damages caused by such abuse at any time and reviving claims against any party for such damages that occurred on or after July 1, 1984.” It was requested for introduction by Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, and has been referred to the Judiciary committee.

Senate Bill 149: “Expanding the crime of promoting obscenity to minors to include drag performances.” Here’s the bill from Thompson that you couldn’t find on the legislative website Wednesday as news was breaking about the proposal. It’s indeed as I speculated: Anyone screening “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Some Like it Hot” or “Tootsie” to children or teens would be committing a crime. The bill says that performance “means any play, motion picture, dance or other exhibition performed before an audience.”

Kim Bergman speaks at a Jan. 12, 2023, news conference on childhood sexual assault at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

How time flies

As I wrote this column on Friday, my phone’s photo gallery indicated it was a year to the day that the Kansas Democratic Party trapped some poor sap in a groundhog costume. They sent this groundhog to Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office, bearing a sign that linked him to former Gov. Sam Brownback.

At the time, I found the stunt — ahem — less than compelling. For one thing, it wasn’t even Groundhog Day. I didn’t think relentlessly tying Schmidt to Brownback made sense as Kelly sought another term. “At best, this lighthearted imagery distracts from the big issues at stake,” I harrumphed. “At worst, it suggests Democrats don’t take the race seriously — and maybe voters shouldn’t, either.”

The results of the ensuing year proved me wrong. Schmidt’s campaign showed all the verve of a limp rag, and Kelly won reelection. Maybe the groundhog did it all.

A groundhog holds a sign likening Attorney General Derek Schmidt to former Gov. Sam Brownback in front of Schmidt's office on Feb. 3. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
Tricia Masenthin/The Lawrence Times A groundhog holds a sign likening Attorney General Derek Schmidt to former Gov. Sam Brownback in front of Schmidt’s office on Feb. 3. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Council Grove thanks

Before closing this week, I have to offer gigantic thanks on behalf of the Kansas Reflector to the folks at Flint Hills Books and Riverbank Brewing in Council Grove. Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith, reporters Allison Kite and Rachel Mipro, and yours truly answered reader questions at an event Monday night. About 50 folks turned up, and we were delighted to meet and speak with all of you.

Stay tuned for future appearances, as we have a couple already planned in Hutchinson and Newton. And thanks once again to all of our friends, supporters and readers. We can’t do any of this without you.

Christina Craig/Lawrence Times From left: Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith, opinion editor Clay Wirestone, reporter Rachel Mipro and reporter Allison Kite appear at Riverbank Brewing in Council Grove on Jan. 30, 2023. (Jessica Tufts for Kansas Reflector)

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.

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: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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