The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic means lawmakers must hurry through their key priorities in case the legislative session is abruptly disrupted.
Local legislators — Sen. Caryn Tyson of Parker, Rep. Kent Thompson of LaHarpe and Rep. Ken Collins of Mulberry — talked about the start of the session during a Legislative Update with Allen County Farm Bureau members on Monday evening.
Legislative committees were disrupted Tuesday and Wednesday because of potential threats to the Statehouse in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riots protesting Donald Trump’s loss in the presidential election.
Legislators also expect they will face COVID-19-related disruptions, as well. The state Constitution requires lawmakers be in the building when voting, but they could participate in virtual meetings from their offices, Thompson said.
“I think there will be an outbreak. It’s probably not a question of if but when, so they’re trying to get quite a bit accomplished,” Thompson said.
“We did not vote on any legislation in the House last week. I’m anticipating this week is when we do. We’ll have quite a few things happen pretty quickly.”
Lawmakers also will work to overturn two bills vetoed by the governor in the last session and finish some of the items they weren’t able to address last year, Tyson said.
LAWMAKERS, especially in the Senate, will focus on about five key areas, Tyson said.
At the top of that list is to extend the state’s COVID-19 disaster emergency declaration before it expires Jan. 26. The GOP-led Senate and House have each proposed bills that do more than extend the deadline. They propose new limits on Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s powers, and would not allow her to close businesses or order a new lockdown.
“Next week is when the current declaration runs out and I believe we’re going to have something by then,” Collins said.
Legislators returned after the last session to pass the original bill that determined how the state would respond to numerous COVID-19-related issues. The new bills would extend those provisions.
“A year ago we never dreamed we would have a pandemic of this proportion. Maybe now we know a little bit more and we can handle it better. I hope we can.”
Tyson echoed Collins and added, “We found out, through some of the governor’s actions, that it’s not one-size-fits-all for emergencies.”
The legislature needs to do a deep dive on the emergency powers issue, Tyson said, though they also need to move quickly.
“We all know COVID is real but we also need to be wise about the fallout. Kansas is one of the states being hit extremely hard and we’ve got to be smart about how we’re managing it.”
She pointed to numerous cases of scammers who file fraudulent unemployment claims. Current state laws make it very difficult to resolve the problems caused by false claims, and it typically falls on the victim to sort through a very complicated process.
“It takes so much of your time and resources. And you’re the victim.”
Other priorities are:
“There’s only one thing we have to do, according to the Constitution, and that’s pass a budget,” Thompson said.
Historically, budget approval tends to happen in the final days of the session. That’s because it’s important to do research and obtain the best possible financial numbers, Thompson said. But with the pandemic and fears of a shortened session, it’s not clear if lawmakers may try to speed that process, too.
Property tax transparency
The Senate passed a bill that addresses property tax transparency, prevents property valuation increases related to routine maintenance, allows county treasurers to set up payment plans and removes a limit on how much counties can increase property taxes without a public vote.
State income tax
Lawmakers will need to find a way to work around a provision in President Trump’s 2017 tax cut bill that inadvertently increases state income taxes, Tyson said.
Some Kansans will pay more state income taxes than federal, she said.
Pro-life lawmakers are pushing for a vote on a Constitutional amendment on abortion.
A proposed amendment in the last session fell just short of votes for approval, but the recent election brought more conservatives to the Legislature and it has a better chance this year.
If approved, it would override a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that declared the state Constitution guarantees women the right to terminate a pregnancy.
LAWMAKERS also expressed concerns about how the Census could affect the redistricting process, which is expected to take place in 2022. The pandemic has made it difficult for Census workers to conduct a count. Populations trends show rural areas are losing residents while urban regions are growing.
Of the local legislators, only Tyson (then a freshman House representative) was part of the previous redistricting process, which had to be determined by the courts after hitting roadblocks in the Legislature.
“I think we’ve got some good people in the Legislature. I think we’ll come up with some good maps,” Tyson said. “I’m very hopeful. I always start out hopeful.”
“That’s a political process. It’s probably the most political thing we do,” Thompson said. “I’m concerned we’re going to lose (population) in the rural areas.”