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Kansas Legislature Promises More Debate Over COVID-19, Critical Race Theory

TOPEKA – As Kansas lawmakers converge in Topeka on Monday to address issues related to the ubiquitous COVID-19 disease, election law and the state’s economic well-being, some advocates are hoping humanity, not the spirit of political play, will be able to shine in 2022.

An election year, mingled with public outcry over the management of the pandemic, sets up a remarkable 2022 session. Expect discussions on passing medical marijuana law, expanding Medicaid eligibility, critical race theory, repealing the food sales tax on groceries and more in the months to come.

On top of that, lawmakers will attempt to redraw the boundaries of Kansas House, the Kansas Senate, and the United States House, a process that will certainly have an impact on the elections and the political landscape of Kansas over the next coming year. decade.

The leaders of Kansas Interfaith Action – a state-wide, multi-faith advocacy organization – urged lawmakers to serve everyone, not just the privileged few.

Pastor Robert Johnson is the principal servant of Saint Mark’s United Methodist Church in Wichita and a member of the Kansas Interfaith Action board of directors. (Submitted)

“I hope that if we go beyond the mere realms of power, the realm of politics and the limits of political conversations, there can be enough compassion to do things like maintain a veto,” he said. Pastor Robert Johnson, the leader. servant of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita and board member of Kansas Interfaith Action, in an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast.

In 2021, 769 bills were introduced, of which 116 became law after approval by both houses and the governor. A total of 601 bills from last year, including a medical marijuana proposal passed by the House, will be postponed until the legislative session of 2022.

A new set of burning issues rise to the top, including Critical Race Theory.

Despite repeated promises from state and local school board members that Kansas schools and teachers do not teach CRT, political pressure has brought the issue to the fore. Kansas Interfaith Action plans to oppose any legislation restricting a comprehensive view of Kansas and American history.

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the conversation was already not complete in most schools in Kansas.

“What are you afraid of? Either way, you don’t really teach it,” Rieber said. “What it really shows is there’s something to be proud of, you know – not there. ‘injustice, but overcoming injustice, which we have done continuously throughout our history. “

A lack of comprehensive historical education, combined with a political game, led to the ignorance displayed in November ahead of the special session when a family opposed to the COVID-19 warrants showed up wearing the Star of David, said Rieber.

“In theory, you could end up losing your job if you don’t get the vaccine, but it’s not the same as being put in a cattle car,” Rieber said. “My story is not here for someone else’s political point of view.”

Governor Laura Kelly answers questions during a press conference on January 6, 2022 at the Statehouse in Topeka, where she announced a new declaration of emergency. (Sherman Smith / Reflector Kansas)

Special reminder session

Expect lawmakers to tackle the unfinished business of the incendiary special session early on, especially in light of a newly signed declaration of disaster from Gov. Laura Kelly.

Possible coronavirus-related bills range from a withdrawal of authority from a private company to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to a proposal to add COVID-19 vaccination status to the list of prohibited forms of discrimination in employment – on grounds of race, religion, color, sex, disability, ancestry, national origin and age. A measure banning any form of “vaccination passport” also sparked some discussion.

“I think when we look at the next session… there will be discussions about going further, what is that like and how can we protect people more?” How can we consider banning mandates? Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican from Hesston who served on the special committee on government overbreadth, said at the end of the November special session.

A proposal by Senator Robert Olson, R-Olathe, to prevent employers from contributing to the state unemployment trust fund if there was a spike in unemployment claims did not make the final bill of the extraordinary session. In 2022, he could find a new life.

David Jordan, chairman of the United Methodist Department of Health Fund, insisted that science and the advice of public health professionals should be the driving force behind COVID-19 legislation.

“We need to trust public health professionals, whether at the local level or within state agencies, to implement policies that we know work like masking, vaccination and for s ‘ensure their efforts are not hampered by politics,’ Jordan said.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer and Deputy Minority Leader Jason Probst announce three constitutional amendments to bring the expansion of Medicaid and recreational and medical marijuana to voters statewide. (Noah Taborda / Reflector Kansas)

Marijuana and Medicaid

Other efforts regarding Kansans’ health, such as the potential extension of Medicaid or the legalization of some form of marijuana, are already underway. Three Kansas constitutional amendments recently proposed by the Democratic House leadership would see these issues put to a public vote.

Amendments to the state’s constitution – one to expand Medicaid, one to legalize medical marijuana, and one to legalize recreational marijuana – would require the legislature to create these policies by July 1, 2023. .

Before going to a public vote, the proposed amendments must be supported by two-thirds of both chambers. Minority House Leader Tom Sawyer hoped that despite past deadlocks on these issues, allowing a vote could spark more conversation with Republicans.

“The Republican leadership has actively blocked it at every turn,” the Wichita Democrat said. “It’s time to start handing these things over to Kansans and let them decide. … He asks Kansans: “Do you want the legislator to do this?” If they vote yes, then the legislature will have to conform to the will of the voters.

If adopted, the measures would be put to a public vote next November. Kansas is one of 12 states that have yet to expand Medicaid, and three states that have yet to legalize marijuana in some form or another.

In 2021, Kansas House passed a medical marijuana bill, but the Senate chose not to act, although it may still do so in 2022.

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab answers questions from reporters Monday after the Electoral College vote on December 14, 2020 in the State House chamber. (Sherman Smith / Reflector Kansas)

Elections and redistribution

Unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud have raised concerns about the integrity of the elections and set the stage for a more in-depth debate on the electoral law in 2022.

In the last session, lawmakers approved a set of bills described by franchise advocates as restrictive or unconstitutional. A series of legal actions against these measures are still pending.

In 2022, the Senate and the House plan to deepen the integrity of the elections. Despite repeatedly saying that elections in Kansas are safe and secure, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab is looking to make more changes to election law to tackle so-called voter fraud.

Suggestions include changes to election audit processes, securing election materials, and a recommendation to purge voters who skip two elections.

“By securing voting equipment, improving electoral audits and maintaining voter lists, Kansans can be confident that these simple changes will improve security without confusing voters,” Schwab said.

One issue that’s sure to creep into the electoral law conversation is redistribution, which could have a huge impact on future elections. The task of redrawing the state’s maps to serve the interests of nearly 3 million Kansans must be completed by June to provide an orderly process for submitting nominations.

The Republican Party has openly spoken of developing congressional districts that protect the interests of three outgoing GOP congressmen and undermine the re-election prospects of the state’s only Democrat in Washington, United States Representative Sharice Davids. . The Democratic Party has the opposite goal.

League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County board member Charley Crabtree urged lawmakers to avoid legal and political issues.

“Democracy is served when constituencies are designed with respect for the equity and integrity of neighborhoods, when classes of voters are not targeted for suppression and when those in power practice the golden rule of politics – that is, remembering that they won’t always be in power, at least not in a true democracy, ”Crabtree said.

Rabbi Moti Rieber is executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, a state-wide faith-based advocacy organization that “puts faith in action” on important social, economic and climate justice issues. He lives in Overland Park. (Submitted)

Help the Hungry Kansans

While big issues will gain much of the attention of the legislature, Johnson and Rieber are focused on ensuring the economic well-being of at-risk Kansans.

One of the big things is the elimination of the state sales tax on food, a proposal put forward by Governor and Attorney General Derek Schmidt last year. According to Kelly’s proposal, estimates indicate that a family of four would save $ 500 on their grocery bill. Kelly estimated the loss of state revenue at $ 450 million.

“Here in the zip code I’m in, we’re in a food desert on top of sales tax, so food is expensive and healthy food is scarce,” Johnson said. “If we eliminate the sales tax on food, it will help the poorest Kansans considerably and be a huge economic boost for them. “

Johnson is also examining the predatory practice of payday lending, an issue that sparked discussion in legislative committees last year but was never addressed by both houses. He and Rieber said the payday lending industry and lobbyists had succeeded in crushing old coalitions proposing reform.

“When (people of color and poor Kansans) are in trouble and we need a loan, we need financial resources, the only ones available to lend us money, that’s a predatory loan.” Johnson said. “It may seem like the world is against you.”