Opinion: The Upside-Down Kansas Legislature

“Once there lived an Upside-Down, who was the talk of all the town.

If he was told to turn to right, he turned left out of spite.”

• Alexander Kushner

The 2021 Kansas Legislature is Upside-Down-land, filled with lawmakers who focus their attention on nonproblems, while purposefully ignoring the state’s real issues.

Reflecting the nutty fixation of Sen. Roger Marshall, Statehouse Republicans have focused immense attention on the burning question of whether Kansas transgender female athletes, perhaps five in total, should be able to compete in women’s sports. As with many other states’ partisans, Kansas Republicans studiously avoid important issues by obsessing on the bright shiny object of transgender students, who are among the state’s most vulnerable residents.

In passing an anti-trans athletes measure through an “emergency” (sic) process, Kansas risks the fate of states experiencing boycotts after passing such bills, including North Carolina’s misguided “bathroom bill” that lost that state more than $400 million in events revenues.

Contrast this with the legislators’ intransigent unwillingness to address Medicaid expansion, which would directly address the needs of more than 100,000 Kansans. This gross neglect over the past decade, which has cost Kansas over $3 billion in funding, is even more shameful and stupid in 2021, given provisions of the American Recovery Plan, or ARP.

Aside from many other positive health care provisions, the ARP offers new, enhanced incentives for Kansas to expand Medicaid, most notably an extra $450 million in benefits over the next two years, compared with increased expenditures of $210 million. The state would come out a big fiscal winner in tough times and up to 150,000 Kansans would receive health coverage.

For Republican legislators, these generous, humane Medicaid provisions might as well not exist. In their Upside-Down world, even the possibility of some future increased expenses is enough to ignore every positive. Lawmakers simply avert their eyes, choosing to attack the mythology of trans athletes, while also seeking to exact a pound of flesh from Kansas universities.

Indeed, this latter subject — forcing universities to refund up to $150 million in tuition for those students whose classes moved from in-person to remote teaching — represents an Upside-Down two-fer for GOP legislators. That is, they can create a nonissue (refunds) that would further damage a higher education system already reeling from huge COVID-related fiscal losses, including $75 million for the University of Kansas alone.

Saddling Kansas universities with tens of millions in extra expenses would be crippling, yet for many lawmakers it is a point of pride, in that they would rather score political points than bolster 150 years of state investment in higher education.

Why this Upside-Down divergence between symbolism and substance for many Republican legislators, both in D.C. and Topeka? Largely because they have no serious policy agenda, as witnessed by their unwillingness to write a national party platform in 2020. Rather, they just said, “Our program is whatever Donald Trump wants.”

In Topeka, this translates to “Whatever Gov. Laura Kelly supports, we oppose, even though we have little to offer in its place.” For deep-red Kansas, that may be enough, as trans students, the uninsured working poor and state universities become targets for Republican lawmakers who provide no serious policies. At the same time, real issues of health care, a COVID-weakened economy, higher education, and, yes, actual discrimination against trans students go unaddressed.

Upside-Down, indeed.

— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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