Legislature issues to come: Medicaid, abortion, natural hair

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- Legislature issues to come: Medicaid, abortion, natural hair

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, center, answers questions from reporters about a new Medicaid expansion plan as lawmakers and other advocates watch, including Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, second from the left.

The Associated Press

As the 2020 session of the Kansas Legislature starts Monday, lawmakers will be facing a diverse array of proposals ranging from a constitutional amendment that could eventually lead to an abortion ban, to the ongoing question of health insurance for the working poor, to discrimination protection for persons with natural hairstyles, to electric poles that tower over a Wichita neighborhood.

Here’s a look at some of the noteworthy bills that will be up for debate at the Statehouse over the next few months:

Abortions

The issue: The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the state Constitution protects the individual right to terminate a pregnancy. This could be a bulwark against efforts to outlaw abortion in Kansas if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision protecting abortion rights nationwide.

Who’s affected: Women who wish to terminate a pregnancy, physicians who perform the procedure, and advocates on both sides of the abortion issue.

Where it stands: Because the court decision at issue is rooted in the Kansas Constitution, the only way for the Legislature to overturn it is to amend the Constitution. That requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature to put it on an election ballot, and a majority vote in that election. Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he thinks the Senate has the votes to pass the amendment but whether the House can get two-thirds is questionable.

Medicaid expansion

The issue: The years-long battle to expand Medicaid — known as KanCare — to cover about 150,000 uninsured Kansans continues, but legislators think this might be the year it could actually happen.

Who’s affected: The insurance gap primarily affects the working poor, wage earners who make too much to qualify for KanCare but not enough to qualify for subsidized private insurance through the federal Affordable Care Act. The federal government has offered to pay for 90 percent of Medicaid expansion and 36 states have accepted. The Kansas Hospital Association has advocated for expanding Medicaid to improve access to health care and reduce unpaid medical bills.

Where it stands: Last year, the House passed an expansion bill but it bogged down in the Senate, where Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, blocked it from coming to a floor vote. An effort to override Wagle’s blockade failed 23-13, one vote short of the 24-vote supermajority needed to force it to the floor.

Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, voted to pass, rather than voting yes or no, making him the potential swing vote on expansion.

This year, he and Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, have negotiated a compromise plan that would expand coverage, but retain a larger role for private insurers.

The choice to expand Medicaid or not was originally offered to the states’ governors. But, at the urging of former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican and opponent of expansion, the Legislature passed a law requiring legislative approval. In 2017, when expansion passed both the House and Senate, Brownback vetoed it.

Evergy electric poles

The issue: Legislators from northeast Wichita are pushing for restrictions on placement of power poles after a controversy over towers that Westar Energy, now called Evergy, installed in residents’ yards. The monopole towers, constructed of metal and up to 105 feet tall, replaced smaller wooden poles in a predominantly minority residential neighborhood.

Who’s affected: Neighbors have complained that the towers, some within a few steps of people’s doors, are an eyesore that has devalued their property by thousands of dollars and reduced quality of life in an area already facing challenges such as poverty, poorly maintained rental properties and vacant houses. The poles were the most-frequent complaint raised by the public at last week’s South Central Kansas Legislative forum at Wichita City Hall.

Where it stands: Rep. Gail Finney and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, both Wichita Democrats, are pushing for legislation to regulate the placement of utility poles in residential neighborhoods. The legislation would require notification of property owners within a quarter-mile of such projects and mandate that the Kansas Corporation Commission review them for impact on neighborhoods.

Gun safety

The issue: Following the death of a child in an accidental shooting in Wichita last year, some lawmakers are pushing to require safe storage of firearms in homes with children.

Who’s affected: Families with children under 18 who own firearms.

Where it stands: A bill called “Roy’ale’s Law” is planned for introduction early in the session. It draws its name from the case of Roy’ale Spencer, a 9-year-old Wichita boy accidentally killed by a friend playing with a weapon they got out of a safe with a broken lock. The bill would require that guns be adequately locked to prevent accidental discharge by a child, said Faust-Goudeau, who is sponsoring it.

Watermelon

The issue: Should watermelon be the official fruit of the state of Kansas?

Who’s affected: People who like watermelons. People who don’t like watermelons. People annoyed by Oklahoma.

Where it stands: Rep. Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, has prefiled a bill that would designate the watermelon (citrullus lanatus) as the official state fruit of Kansas. In 2007, neighboring Oklahoma named the watermelon its official state vegetable, prompting a group of Kansas schoolchildren to try to set the record straight and restore watermelons to their rightful place as a fruit.

Taxes

The issue: At present, Kansas tax returns are tied to federal returns and taxpayers can only itemize deductions on their state taxes if they also itemize on their federal form. President Trump’s tax plan, passed in 2017 by Congress, made it less advantageous to itemize.

Who’s affected: Potentially, all state taxpayers, especially those who choose not to itemize deductions on their federal return.

Where it stands: Last year, both houses of the Legislature passed a bill to “decouple” state taxes from federal taxes. This would allow taxpayers to claim the standard deduction on their federal return and still itemize Kansas deductions. Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bill, which would have reduced state revenues by an estimated $190 million.

Proponents of the bill, who are poised to try again, say the state government is getting a “windfall” from the Trump tax plan and should pass that along to Kansas taxpayers. Opponents say the change would increase the administrative costs of processing taxes and they’d rather cut the sales tax on food.

While a decoupling bill would likely be vetoed again, it could create a wedge issue for anti-tax Republicans to use against Democrats and Republican moderates.

Suspended licenses

The issue: Tens of thousands of Kansans have lost their driving privileges due to fines, court costs and late fees they can’t afford to pay. Many of them drive without licenses because they need to get to work, risking further violations and fines.

Who’s affected: Primarily low-income workers who get traffic tickets they can’t afford.

Where it stands: At least two bills are planned that would give judges the discretion to defer, reduce or waive fines and fees for people who can demonstrate that they are unable to pay them.

Natural hair

The issue: Discrimination in jobs and education against people with natural hairstyles, including a national controversy over a New Jersey referee who prevented an African-American high school wrestler from competing until his coach cut off his dreadlocks.

Who’s affected: Persons with natural hair styles associated with race, ethnicity or culture.

Where it stands: At the urging of the Kansas African-American Affairs Commission, Faust-Goudeau plans to introduce a bill to forbid discrimination against persons with natural hairstyles. The bill will be similar to legislation already passed in California, New York and several cities across the country.

How to be heard:

If you’d like to contact your state legislators about these or other bills that come up during the session, complete rosters of both the House and Senate are available at www.kslegislature.org.

More information on the Legislature can be accessed by phone by calling the Legislative Hotline at 800-432-3924 in Kansas or 785-296-2149 out-of-state. The hotline is a free service provided by the State Library of Kansas.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.



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