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3.2.24 – Kansas Reflector

Just how out of touch are Kansas lawmakers from the people they represent?

A new study from Duke University offers a disconcerting answer. Only 0.6% of state legislators — yes, that’s zero point six — hold working-class jobs. Researchers included manual labor, service industry, clerical and labor union gigs in that category. They make up about half of all U.S. jobs.

On the other hand, 36.4% of Kansas legislators work in the business sector. That means they employ someone else and occupy a decidedly higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

“These estimates illustrate the striking disparity between Americans and the people who represent them in elected office,” said Duke University political scientist Nicholas Carnes, one of the authors of the study. “In principle, anyone can run for office, but in practice, the people who are running and serving are overwhelmingly drawn from America’s professional classes.”

Nationally, 1.6% — about 1% of Democrats and 2% of Republicans — currently or last worked these kinds of jobs. Yes, Kansas lags that national average by a full percentage point.

You can read more about the research here.

I seized on this study for the lead item today because it explains so much about the Legislature. Why does the Legislature maintain a tribunal focused on denying poor Kansans access to family support programs? That would be Rep. Francis Awerkamp‘s shameful “Welfare Reform” committee. Why do its leaders resist overwhelmingly popular policies such as Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana? Too many in the Legislature have no idea what it means to be poor or even lower middle class.

They’re not like us.

The Kansas Statehouse dome on April 4, 2023
 The Kansas Statehouse dome rests atop the building, all stately copper and stone, on April 4, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Two-day week

If this week’s column reads like even more of a miscellany than usual, there’s a ready explanation. Kansas lawmakers took Monday and Tuesday off (as it happens, so did I), before returning for a handful of hearings on Wednesday and Thursday. Then they headed out for their usual three-day weekend.

Listen, I believe that legislators have big jobs and should be paid more for what they do. But during weeks like this, you could be forgiven for rolling your eyes a bit.

Keep an eye on Dan

House Speaker Dan Hawkins clinched his title this week of Kansas politics’ most enthusiastic yet cringeworthy social media user. Take a look at this Friday post from the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

I’m not going to even delve into the broken graph, which somehow includes both numbers and percentages and the most arbitrary Y axis known to man. No, I’m concerned with the speaker’s spelling of the word “welfare” as “wellfare,” which certainly sets a poor example for Kansas spelling bee participants.

Dan, could you at least have someone proof the tweet before you send it?

House Speaker Dan Hawkins stands on the floor of the House of Representatives before Tuesday's override vote.
 House Speaker Dan Hawkins stands on the floor of the House of Representatives before last week’s override vote on the flat tax. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Miscounting votes

I made a mistake in last week’s column about the attempt to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of GOP leaders’ flat tax plan.

At the time, I wrote that three GOP legislators had changed their votes. The number was actually four. The folks who switched were Reps. Michael Dodson of Manhattan, Randy Garber of Sabetha, Trevor Jacobs of Fort Scott and Mark Schreiber of Emporia.

The reason for my mix-up? While two Democrats returned to cast votes against the override, another Democrat (Rep. Virgil Weigel of Topeka) was absent for the second go-round. Thus, the votes against the flat tax increased by five, from 37 to 42.

Leap Day babies

Exciting news from the University of Kansas Health System, which informed journalists via press release that it expected 12 births on Feb. 29, or Leap Day. It predicted 10 babies for the Kansas City, Kansas, location and two others at the system’s Olathe Health Campus.

As it happens, your very own Kansas Reflector opinion editor has a connection to this story. My sister was born on Leap Day an undisclosed number of years ago. Happy birthday, two days removed!

A protester holds a sign at last year's March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse.
 A protester holds a sign at last year’s March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

What matters most

At this time of the session, opinion writers can approach their job in a number of ways. We can write lighthearted pieces, gently mocking legislative leaders. You might make fun of a spelling mistake from the House speaker, for example.

But we can write passionately outraged columns as well. You might have seen my column Thursday about legislative bullying of LGBTQ+ kids.

Which approach do I pick? Well, it depends on the topic. When it comes to human rights — the ability of people from all backgrounds and life experiences to live freely — I don’t see much room for compromise. You either believe that people have the right to exist on their own terms, or you don’t. That means I write about attacks on transgender youths frequently and forcefully.

As the saying goes, none of us are free unless all of us are free.

From left, Kansas Reflector's Sherman Smith, Clay Wirestone, Rachel Mipro and Max McCoy appear at an Aug. 23, 2023, forum at the Lyon County History Center in Emporia
 From left, Kansas Reflector’s Sherman Smith, Clay Wirestone, Rachel Mipro and Max McCoy appear at an Aug. 23, 2023, forum at the Lyon County History Center in Emporia. (Jessica Tufts for Kansas Reflector)

A quick note for legislators, advocates and random people on social media.

I am not a reporter. These pieces are not news stories. I am opinion editor for Kansas Reflector, and I write opinion columns. I may do my own reporting to inform the columns and occasionally break news, but that’s not my central role. My pieces aim to add moral force and weight to the issues of the day, prod readers to consider issues in a different way, and above all give voice to those ignored or scorned by those in power.

No, these columns don’t always make legislators feel warm and cozy about themselves. That’s not my job. I have highlighted good things that lawmakers do, and I’m happy when the opportunity presents itself. But I always aim to push past the Statehouse’s marble facades and reveal the real issues and the real stakes.

Questions? Concerns? You can get in touch with me right here.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.