Kansas Legislature begins its 2021 session under shadow of COVID-19
photo by: Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
TOPEKA — The 2021 Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly convened Monday to begin chipping away at a massive backlog of legislation with the cloud of COVID-19 hovering over the proceedings.
Outgoing Sen. Susan Wagle, retiring after 30 years in the Legislature, offered a bit of advice as she shed the title of Senate president.
“In what is quickly becoming a tumultuous era of political unrest, it is more important than ever to be vigilant protecting the vision and the founding principles that have made America the most prosperous and entrepreneurial nation on earth,” Wagle said. “To that end my heart, my prayers and my thoughts are with you.”
Because of COVID-19, the 125 representatives and 40 senators will convene in committee rooms without chairs for public observers and outfitted with sophisticated cameras and televisions to improve remote viewing of bill debate and voting. Public access to the Senate and House chambers will be restricted to address potential spread of coronavirus.
The legislators were sworn into office at a ceremony starting at 2 p.m. Monday in both the Senate and House chambers.
Lawmakers will have access to coronavirus testing services, but neither House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. nor Senate President Ty Masterson felt it necessary to mandate face coverings for lawmakers in the Capitol. Masks have been a priority for Democrats at the Statehouse, while some Republicans share disdain for anybody in government telling people what to wear on their face. It’s a liberty issue, Masterson said.
Ryckman said safety protocols were implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the Capitol. The Statehouse has been operating with hand-sanitizing stations and temperature checks. The House speaker said the protocols won’t prevent infection, but adjustments should help keep employees, legislators and their families safe.
“If there’s a silver lining in all this for the Legislature, it’s that we were able to jumpstart many of the things we’ve wanted to do to increase online access to the process,” Ryckman said.
Rep. Annie Kuether, a Topeka Democrat who has served in the Legislature since 1997, said it should be noted that Washburn University in Topeka decided the spring semester would be taught virtually because of the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in Shawnee County.
“So, by all means, bring Kansas legislators from all four corners of the state here to Shawnee County — over 165 people and staff — and put them together,” Kuether said. “This is disaster waiting to happen. A superspreader event. Right when the Christmas surge is starting. I pray for our front-line and essential workers.”
Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat representing a district in Kansas City, Kan., said she was disturbed by the lax attitudes of Senate leadership regarding a virus that has killed more than 3,000 Kansans and infected nearly a quarter of a million people living in the state.
“It’s a big concern,” Pettey said. “I want to be able to do my job, but I know that part of being able to work in that environment involves using the right health protocols, and we know that makes a big difference. I’ve worked hard to stay healthy to this point. I don’t want to go to Topeka and get COVID. I think that’s the No. 1 issue on everybody’s mind.”
Meanwhile, the House Democratic leadership is expected to file a complaint against Rep.-elect Aaron Coleman to seek his ouster from the Legislature. Coleman has been accused of violent and insulting behavior with women but believes his district’s voters should have the right to decide whether he stays or goes. It would take a two-thirds bipartisan vote of the House to show Coleman the door.
Other issues on the political agenda include a constitutional amendment on abortion, balancing the budget, criminal justice and tax reform, emergency powers of the governor and economic recovery from the pandemic.
Kelly, a Democrat elected in 2018 and preparing for what could be a bruising reelection battle in 2022, is required to submit to the Legislature a state government budget that balances. It’s tricky business because the coronavirus derailed the economy last year and the damage could exacerbate revenue problems known to be on the horizon. In addition, the governor wants to seek expansion of Medicaid, shield the new highway plan from budget raids, add broadband services in underserved areas, improve IT security at state agencies, prevent cuts to K-12 education and block attempts to weaken the social safety net.
“Due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, our duty as lawmakers will undoubtedly hold a new and heightened significance this year,” Kelly said. “Too often, we’ve seen politics come before much-needed cooperation.”
She said a bipartisan compromise to deliver health insurance to about 150,000 Kansans by expanding eligibility for Medicaid was spiked last year for no reason other than partisanship.
“Now more than ever, Kansans deserve leaders who will travel to Topeka to represent their best interests, rather than settling ideological scores,” the governor said. “They need lawmakers who will put political differences aside to deliver mutually agreeable results that protect and promote Kansans’ health and financial welfare.”
Kelly is scheduled to deliver the annual State of the State speech remotely at 7 p.m. Tuesday via Facebook and public television stations. Masterson, the new Senate president, will deliver the GOP’s rebuttal to Kelly’s remarks. The Andover Republican has been in the Legislature since 2005 and was selected in December to be the chamber’s top official.
Wagle, the Wichita Republican who ran for U.S. Senate rather than seek reelection to the Legislature, will place her presidential duties in the state Senate in the hands of Masterson. Over in the House, in a break with tradition, Ryckman retained the job of House speaker for another two-year term.
Wagle closed out a career in the House and Senate that covered three decades. The end came after a 2020 session that was extraordinary in its personal tragedy and professional challenges. Her daughter, Julia Marie Scott, died of cancer. The pandemic, Wagle said, spread fear across the state. The session ended abruptly with dozens of significant bills unresolved.
“I have enjoyed being your Kansas Senate president and am especially proud of breaking a glass ceiling by serving as the first female elected to a top leadership position in the Legislature,” she said in a letter to senators. “Gender, nationality or color of skin have nothing to do with qualifications for the job. I earned the election by gaining the trust of my colleagues and I am thankful for their support and the experience.”
There is a substantial backlog of House and Senate bills that died on the vine in 2020, and the threat of another abbreviated legislative session is expected to drive quicker consideration of reform.
Legislators have already filed bills that touch on economic incentives, minimum wage, adult home liability, advance mail ballots, property taxes, domestic violence, drug treatment, prison reform, law enforcement diversity training and high school civics exams. On Monday, a bill was introduced in the Senate that would reform the emergency powers act relied upon by the governor during the pandemic.
Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, said he would propose a major change in the state’s political process by introducing a constitutional amendment to allow citizen ballot initiatives.
“We have an unresponsive Legislature,” Holland said. “Look how long we’ve messed around with Medicaid expansion. Look how long we’ve messed around with medicinal cannabis. There’s blame on both sides, but we’ve got to get the people a chance to take care of business.”
— Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith report for Kansas Reflector.