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SPOTLIGHT
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Send in the clowns

Published on -2/23/2014, 5:11 PM

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The recent wire service story took on an ominous tone: The United States is facing a clown shortage. "What's happening is attrition," said the head of the Clowns of America International. "The older clowns are passing away."

This is no laughing matter. Where will the clowns of tomorrow come from?

Clearly, the clown association has not been reading the Kansas news. Under our own beautiful, refurbished Big Top in Topeka, we are awash in clowns. It's as if a couple of those tiny circus cars pulled up to the state house and out popped 40 or 50 clowns, ready to put on performances for a full 90 days. Ringling Brothers should be so lucky.

Like every state Legislature, Kansas always has had clowns. They're those folks who stand up and make fools of themselves without ever knowing it. Still, we have a representative government, and fools need representation, too.

But during the past few years, clowns have overrun the Capitol -- in committee rooms, on the floor and everywhere else under the dome. While not wearing floppy shoes or painted faces, they're easy to identify by their words and actions.

Most notably, of course, we have the dynamic GOP duo of Rep. Charles Macheers and Speaker Ray Merrick. Rep. Macheers pushed the bill to allow discrimination against gays (among others) on religious grounds, and the speaker blithely allowed the bill to sail through the House with almost no scrutiny. Then came the firestorm of opposition from across the country, which made the Kansas Legislature appear once again like, well, a bunch of clowns.

But honestly, the grossly mislabeled "religious freedom" bill just has been the most highly publicized bit of comedy. The list goes on.

Legislators have proposed nullifying federal gun laws and enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act, to say nothing of picking a fatuous fight over prairie chickens. Some of these clowns are lawyers, which is laughable in itself.

Republican Rep. Brett Hildebrand wants to prosecute a city employee for having the audacity to express worries about the enforcement of a 2013 law that bans cities from using their funds to express their opinions on gun control. What part of free speech does he, and the Legislature, not understand?

Then we've got Sen. Forrest Knox, who airily dismissed the scientific consensus on climate change, stating, "The only thing you know for sure about the weather in Kansas ... is it's going to change. ... That's all we really know about climate, too." Knox has a degree in mechanical engineering, but not one from the Ringling clown college, so really he's just an amateur at both climate change and comedy.

Wait, there's more. Lots more.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook began the clowning by putting on her famous live sonogram performance to demonstrate -- somehow -- Kansas surrogate pregnancy laws were inadequate.

There are bills to permit spanking in schools, to subsidize private fitness clubs, to challenge fluoridation and generally to cripple local government by restricting cities' and counties' ability to tax -- even in the face of cuts to state funding.

In addition, proposed legislation would: Require students to opt in to sex-education courses; mandate a two-year district residency to be eligible to run for the Legislature; and eliminate the chief justice's ability to choose presiding judges in county courts. All of these are pure politics and laughable.

Given our wonderfully renovated Statehouse, it's a shame serious legislating -- on education, health and infrastructure -- is not in the center ring. But that's the circus business for you.

So Stephen Sondheim's words continue to haunt us:

But where are the clowns?

Quick, send in the clowns.

Don't bother, they're here.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas

and a great fan of musicals.

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