1.15.21 – The Kansas City Star
Fearing that COVID-19 could halt their work at any minute, Kansas lawmakers are setting a breakneck pace in the session’s first week,rushing to act on significant legislation and causingconcerns that transparency will suffer in the process.
Coronavirus continues to spread rapidly in Kansas. The state is recording an average of 445 new cases of the virus each day, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Legislators want to avoid a reprise of 2020, when the pandemic forced them to leave town in mid-March, leaving much of their work unfinished. The rush to pass bills is compounded this year by a legal opinion from Attorney General Derek Schmidt that votes on legislation must occur in Topeka.
Yet despite the health concerns, many lawmakers were without masks and flouted social distancing guidelines Monday as they asgathered in and outside House and Senate chambers, waiting to be sworn in. Although there are local mask mandates in Topeka, legislators and staff are not required to wear them in the Statehouse.
In legislative sessions and committee meetings, adherence to safety measures intended to mitigate the virus’s spread has varied, disconcerting some lawmakers.
“I absolutely have concerns about COVID, especially when the majority of the members of the senate are not wearing masks,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes.
This week, the Senate taxation committee heard testimony on two measures previously vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly: to one requiring local governments to hold public hearings before increasing property taxes and the other to prevent Kansans from owing more on state taxes because of changes to the federal tax code.
The property tax measure was approved by the committee Wednesday. The Senate and House Judiciary committees held hearings on extending the emergency management act, which maintains the COVID-19 state of emergency and limits Kelly’s authority to manage the pandemic. Panels in the House and Senate scheduled hearings for Friday on a constitutional amendment which would allow lawmakers to place restrictions on abortion.
The emergency management act and property tax bills passed with bipartisan support in the Senate Thursday afternoon and will be sent to the House of Representatives.
In a statement to The Star Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said the pandemic has presented several challenges, including an added urgency to legislation.
“This is not a typical year and this will not be a typical legislative session. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many unique challenges, including the need prioritize and move key items early in the session,” Masterson said.
While the abortion amendment and property tax measures were being dealt with “in a timely manner,” Masterson said, “all items will have opportunity for ample discussion and debate, both in committee and on the floor of the Senate.”
Sykes said she understands those concerns, but lawmakers could have done a better job of providing transparency, especially as they adjust to the demands of the virus and work through hiccups in technology.
Though the legislature spent the fall preparing audio and visual technology for remote testimony, many committees had technical difficulties in the first week getting the programs up and running. Remote testimony was not possible in the Tuesday hearings on the property tax measure and emergency management act.
“I think it could have been better,” Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, said. “Especially during a pandemic.”
Zack Pistoras, a lobbyist for the Sierra club, criticized Senate taxation committee chair Tyson at a meeting Tuesday for not providing ample time for the public to engage.
Pistoras said public input is already difficult this year with the pandemic preventing some from coming to the Statehouse and difficulties with technology intended to allow for remote testimony.
“We want to make sure we provide for immediate legislative response to pressing issues,” Pistoras said. “Expediency shouldn’t come at the expense of necessary public engagement and public discourse.”
Tyson, however, said Pistoras misunderstood the rules and that proper legal notice had been given for the hearing. She said it can be difficult for the public to understand how the legislature operates and urged people to use resources available at kslegislature.org.
The swift work in her committee, she said, is necessary for the lawmakers to serve the public.
Tyson’s committee has already sent to the floor a bill which would require public hearings onlocal government property tax increases to the Senate for a vote. The measure passed both chambers last year but was vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly. Another hearing on a bill to allow Kansans to itemize on their state tax returns even if they don’t itemize on their federal returns started Wednesday morning. The measure was vetoed by Kelly in 2019, when it was estimated it would cost the state $170 million in revenue over three years.
Tyson said hearings are common in the first week for her committee. She was willing to act on legislation because of the risk posed by the virus and because both bills had been vetted in previous years.
“We’re taking a very calm approach on the Senate tax committee and working within the parameters we have,” she said.
Because of the technical issues and difficulties adjusting to pandemic procedures Tyson said, she extended the hearing on the tax itemization bill to next week.
Sen. Ethan Corson, a freshman Democrat from Prairie Village, said the committee was moving too quickly. Corson said he only received the fiscal note describing the impact of the property tax measure the morning he voted.
“We’re potentially making important changes to our tax code in the middle of a pandemic without any understanding of what the medium or long term budgetary impacts of them are,” Corson said. “Any changes to the tax code we should wait until we’re on the other side of this.”
Corson was the one ‘no’ vote on the property tax bill, which the committee advanced on a bipartisan vote.
In debate on the senate floor Sen. John Doll, a Garden City Republican, called the measure a “grease bill” because of the pace with which it had moved through the Senate.
“The people out west again were neglected in this thing,” Doll said noting that his constituents lived more than seven hours away, making it difficult to travel to Topeka and testify on the bill.https://58c88f2560bec101c5a3ea456c628087.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Lawmakers are also working swiftly to bring hearings on the state’s emergency management act and an amendment to allow the legislature to impose restrictions on abortion.
Prior to the session, committee leadership signaled plans to move quickly on the emergency management act because it is set to expire on Jan. 26. If the measure is not extended, Kansas will have to declare a new state of emergency to access some federal aid and limits imposed on Kelly’s authority last year will go away.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the extension to the chamber for a vote on Wednesday.
More substantive discussion on reforms to the act, including business liability measures and additional limits to the Governor’s emergency powers, will come later in the session, Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican, said in a committee hearing.
Sen David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, however, said this is the fastest he has ever seen a policy move in his 26 years in the state legislature.
“I do not recall ever a bill that was introduced, had a hearing and worked to pass out of (Judiciary) committee within the first 48 hours of any session,” Haley said. “This is what should be a longer process for, first and foremost the public to read and digest and to respond by way of public input to a very large measure and secondly for the same to be accorded to members of the Senate Judiciary committee.”
The swift movement, Haley said, made it so that key questions, such as what happens if the legislature does not act before the next expiration occurs, could not be answered.
“It is attractive to say to the folks back home as your newly elected or newly returned legislator ‘as promised I’ve acted on this measure that I told you I would,’” Haley said.
The Star’s Sydney Hoover contributed to this story