Kansas Legislature adjourns for the year, leaving Topeka after veto overrides and unfinished business

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House Majority Leader Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, left, speaks with Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, right, during the final day of the 2022 legislative session Monday at the Statehouse.
House Majority Leader Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, left, speaks with Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, right, during the final day of the 2022 legislative session Monday at the Statehouse.

Monday marked the end of the 2022 legislative session and, all things considered, it was a fitting finish.

After two years where Gov. Laura Kelly rejected more bills than any governor in recent memory, Republicans once again overrode her veto and enact two pieces of legislation into law.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also passed several remaining pieces of legislation, including a framework for the state's new 988 suicide prevention hotline and a property tax break for small businesses affected by COVID-19 orders.

What was perhaps most notable, however, was the work left undone.

Lawmakers did not need to pass a new set of congressional district maps, as many feared, after the Kansas Supreme Court upheld last week the original lines enacted earlier this year.

Meanwhile, efforts to legalize medical marijuana and enact a major overhaul of the state's election laws will be left to 2023, after members elected not to take them up.

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Republicans override vetoes on Medicaid, election law change

Legislators voted to overturn Kelly's veto on a bill to delay the re-negotiation of $4 billion worth of contracts with private firms that serve as managed care organizations for the state's Medicaid program. It also contained a provision barring the governor from shutting down churches during an emergency.

They also enacted another bill that would prevent the governor from entering into legal agreements that change state election law without legislative approval.

Both measures would tie the hands of Kelly's administration in ways the governor sharply criticized.

She labeled the MCO bill as "corruption" and a product of "closed-door" dealings in her veto message, echoing her past criticism of the legislation. Democrats slammed the bill once again as tantamount to offering a no-bid contract and said it could jeopardize the KanCare program.

"In the future, if we pass this, people will die because of it," Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said on the House floor.

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The measure would postpone the contracts' renegotiation until after the 2022 election, when Kelly is set to stand for a second term, likely against GOP Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Republicans have argued the bill is a necessary way of ensuring procurement is handled properly, pointing to what they view as past mishandling of state contracts by Kelly's administration.

They also have said it is necessary to ensure the next governor has full control over the lucrative contracts and pushed back on accusations of untoward behavior.

"If you're going to make accusations, you better have your facts straight," said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita.

The second bill, prohibiting so-called consent decrees on election provisions, comes after the Kelly administration struck a deal last fall with civil rights groups, averting a lawsuit alleging the state was not in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act.

Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, peers out from a window in the House chambers while speaking with an aide Monday afternoon.
Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, peers out from a window in the House chambers while speaking with an aide Monday afternoon.

It drew criticism from Democrats, with Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, arguing the tool can be useful in avoiding costly litigation.

"I submit that this bill is totally unnecessary," Miller said. "I ask you to sustain the governor's veto so we can operate in the state of Kansas as we always have without an issue arising."

Lawmakers made no attempt to override the governor's veto of a public health bill that would have banned mask mandates and a budget line-item veto blocking state universities from raising tuition.

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Suicide prevention hotline bill passes

Meanwhile, the Kansas Senate sent Kelly a bill implementing the 988 suicide prevention hotline.

Under the legislation, the Kansas Department of Aging and Disabilities Services would begin certain mental health services, create an advisory council and hire staff to support the hotline. Call centers would also have statutory responsibilities.

"When this service is needed, it will help people get it," said Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence.

A group of Republicans opposed the bill or voted pass, arguing they were in favor of suicide prevention but thought the legislation would have benefited from closer collaboration with 911 call centers and was overly prescriptive.

"I do want to do something about this but I think this bill creates a layer of bureaucracy that is unnecessary," said Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee.

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Lawmakers pass tax cuts in response to COVID pandemic

After a push by Democrats and some Republicans for more tax cuts this session, lawmakers passed a smaller package than many had hoped for.

The legislation in HB 2136 is headlined by property tax relief for small retail businesses shuttered by COVID-19 orders. The program is funded with $50 million in federal money.

"The COVID relief portion, this is so important," said Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, the tax committee chair. "We had businesses that were shut down by our governor. She's going to take credit for giving them property tax relief here. You guys, don't buy into that narrative. It is a false narrative. She is the reason that we have to pass this legislation."

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, the top Democrat on the tax committee, had pushed for the COVID relief. He called it "a true show of bipartisan spirit."

Fellow Democrats were more tepid and defended Kelly.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, called the bill an "adequate response" for affected businesses while maintaining that "responsible" government public health orders were "necessary to quell a raging pandemic."

The bill passed the Senate 35-0. It later 120-1 in the House after a failed procedural move by Democrats to try to sweeten the pot with an earlier food sales tax cut. Lawmakers also left other tax cuts on the table in various proposals that never saw a vote in the House.

"I'm completely disappointed because we could have gotten more legislation this year; we should have gotten more legislation this year," Tyson said.

Tyson got the Senate to unanimously pass more tax cuts with HB 2597, but the House had already adjourned for the year, so the vote was largely symbolic.

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Lawmakers leave Topeka without finishing work

House Minority Leader Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, addresses the House during the final day of the 2022 legislative session Monday at the Statehouse.
House Minority Leader Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, addresses the House during the final day of the 2022 legislative session Monday at the Statehouse.

Kansas legislative sessions can last up to 90 days, but lawmakers left after 57. Left undone are a range of items, including a major election law overhaul that would add significant restrictions on the use of ballot drop boxes in the state.

Other items, championed by Democrats, were also not touched, including more funding for special education.

"Despite much work left to be finished, Republicans are eager to adjourn so they can hit the fundraising trail and focus on re-elections," House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said. "Their first priority needs to be completing the work left on the table."

But the highest profile bit of unfinished business was a bill to legalize medical cannabis in Kansas.

The legislation sat largely untouched over the course of the session in the Senate, despite fledgling negotiations taking place last month to come up with a final product.

The House did pass a bill allowing residents to take Food and Drug Administration-approved medications containing THC.

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Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, unsuccessfully attempted to send the bill back to negotiations between to House and the Senate to add in a provision decriminalizing fentanyl test strips.

That policy has been championed by a bipartisan group of legislators but was a non-starter for Senate Republicans.

He also criticized the upper chamber for not taking up medical marijuana.

"If the Senate didn't sit on its hands, we wouldn't be in such an urgent situation with this bill," said Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, strikes his gavel a final time Monday afternoon closing out the 2022 senate session from the Statehouse.
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, strikes his gavel a final time Monday afternoon closing out the 2022 senate session from the Statehouse.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said internal disagreements among the medical marijuana's bill proponents ultimately threw up a barrier to get it across the line. He acknowledged, however, that it was uncertain any of the proposals to date would have been able to get a majority of votes needed for passage in his chamber.

"I think the subject matter is mature and you will see it next year," Masterson said.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.

Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at jtidd@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas Legislature adjourns, leaving with unfinished business