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Some of the issues the Kansas Legislature will discuss will be the government’s response to coronavirus, education, abortion and property taxes.

The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Legislature reconvenes Monday with a membership that will be decidedly more Republican and conservative than last year, solidifying GOP power to oppose the Democratic governor, Laura Kelly.

Republicans made substantial gains in the November elections, holding on to veto-proof control of the Senate and achieving a veto-proof House majority for the first time during the Kelly Administration.

The changes are expected to have profound effects on issues that have been simmering at the Capitol for years — and some new matters.

Here’s a look at some of the issues that are expected to highlight the upcoming session, starting Monday.

COVID-19 pandemic response

The dominant issue of the 2020 session, COVID is back and could be even hotter this year.

Last year, the Legislature stripped Kelly of most of her emergency authority to restrict businesses or take other actions on COVID without permission from Republican legislative leaders. They also granted county commissions across the state authority to pretty much ignore any orders the governor might make for addressing the pandemic.

Most of the brakes on Kelly’s power are due to expire on Jan. 26.

Kelly has said the county-by-county approach to the pandemic has been a disaster, as evidenced by skyrocketing rates of viral infection and packed COVID intensive care units in hospitals across the state. Legislative leaders disagree, seeing it as more a matter of local control and freedom for businesses and individuals to move back toward normal activity.

They’re laying the groundwork to extend the restrictions on Kelly’s authority until they can write their own rules for dealing with the pandemic.

Abortions

Republicans expect to take another run at a “Value Them Both” constitutional amendment, seeking to overturn a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that a woman’s right to an abortion is protected by the state Constitution.

It’s been a priority among conservative Republicans to remove that hurdle to allow the state to ban abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court, which has swung to a stronger conservative majority under President Donald Trump, reverses the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that protects abortion rights nationwide.

Last year, the amendment passed the Senate with the needed two-thirds majority to put the question to voters and will undoubtedly do so again. It failed by four votes in the House, but several Democrats and four moderate Republicans who voted against it were defeated in 2020 elections, so the amendment’s prospects look very good this year.

Medicaid expansion

Democrats and some Republicans have labored unsuccessfully for years to try to expand the state’s KanCare Medicaid system to cover more of the state’s unsinsured working poor, with the federal government agreeing to pay 90 percent of the cost.

Kelly had majorities to do that in both houses last year, but was blocked by former Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita, who wouldn’t let it come to the Senate floor unless the House approved the anti-abortion amendment.

Wagle’s gone, but also gone are key legislators who pushed hard for Medicaid expansion, including Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and former House Minority Leader Jim Ward, who lost their elections in November.

Democrats acknowledge that Medicaid expansion is almost certainly dead until they can regroup and try to recapture seats in next election cycle two years from now.

Schools

Kelly drew the ire of the Republican legislative majority last year when she shut down in-person school statewide in March and districts finished out the school year online.

This year, the schools have limped along with a mixture of in-person instruction and online learning. Many have faced severe teacher shortages as educators were forced out of the classrooms by either catching COVID-19 or having to quarantine because of close exposure to COVID-infected students and staff.

Republican lawmakers have been under intense pressure from parents who want the schools to reopen fully.

The ability to close schools unilaterally was one of the emergency powers the Legislature took away from Kelly last year and the majority is expected to mandate, or at least strongly encourage, that schools return to normal pre-pandemic operation sooner rather than later.

Income, sales tax cuts

With a stronger conservative supermajority, Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Ron Ryckman said they would revisit tax cuts vetoed by Kelly in 2019. The leaders pointed to the measure as a way to begin the state’s economic recovery from COVID-19.

“This is the decoupling, letting Kansans take advantage of the federal cuts that happened two years ago,” Masterson said.

The measures would have reduced the state’s revenues by $245 million over three years. It sought to lower the state’s food sales tax which is among the highest in the nation, allow Kansans to itemize deductions on their state tax whether or not they itemize on their federal form and permit deduction of global intangible low-taxed income allowing multinational corporations to bring funds earned overseas to Kansas without taxes.

When Kelly shot down the measure she said it would “decimate the state’s ability to pay our bills and invest in our people” just as the state was recovering from deficits left by former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Saving Century II

A group of Wichita activists are pushing to change Kansas state law to make it harder for cities to tear down historic buildings and easier for residents to petition local governments.

Save Century II leader Celeste Racette has contacted several local legislators and hopes to introduce a Municipal Historic Buildings Act, which would require cities to hold an election before selling or demolishing any city-owned building that is more than 80,000 square feet and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

In Wichita, that would include Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center and the former Central Public Library, two buildings tabbed for demolition in the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan, a $1.2 billion redevelopment plan on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A second proposal, the Municipal Initiative Reform Act, would ease restrictions on citizen-led initiative petitions. A Sedgwick County judge tossed out a Save Century II petition in the summer after Racette and others gathered more than 17,000 signatures.

The new legislation seeks to cap the number of signatures required to put a city ordinance proposal on a ballot and rewrite the rules to make it easier for citizens to defend their initiatives in court.

Property taxes

Sedgwick County and other local governments are pushing legislation to repeal a state law passed in 2019 that requires them to get voter approval to raise property taxes by more than a state-calculated rate of inflation.

The alternative bill would require that governments provide taxpayers written notice and hold a public hearing before increasing the tax.

Mental health

Sedgwick County and others have joined to seek legislation to reform the treatment of people with mental illness, in part by establishing regional residential mental-health centers around the state to augment the overcrowded state mental hospitals at Larned and Osawatomie.

The county also is seeking an $8.2 million general increase in funding for public mental health agencies and a 4% increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates for providing mental health services.

Humvees

A Butler County legislator, Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, has introduced legislation to allow military surplus vehicles known as Humvees to be licensed for road use.

Williams argues that the Humvee ban is pointless because the vehicles are substantially similar to Hummers, a luxurious but pricey civilian version of the military truck that can be licensed without issues.

The bill would also help a budding Butler County industry involved in buying bare-bones military-surplus Humvees and upgrading them for civilian use with doors, hardtops, interior kits and air conditioning.

Tracking legislation

The state library has established a legislative hotline staffed by librarians who can answer such questions as the status of bills or how to contact local legislators. The hotline — 800-432-3924 — is staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Residents may also text questions to 785-256-0733 or on weekends and evenings email [email protected]

Additional information is available on the state website, kslegislature.org.

Chance Swaim of The Eagle and Katie Bernard of the Kansas City Star contributed to this report

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.

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