Kansas Legislature got more conservative — and four other takeaways from the 2021 session

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Lawmakers have largely wrapped up the 2021 legislative session, clashing over issues ranging from taxes and voting rights to the participation of transgender athletes in women's sports.

Kansas lawmakers wrapped up the bulk of their work for the annual legislative session on Friday, capping a hectic and, in many ways, historic year.

More than 80 bills became law during that time, with a half dozen other measures sitting on Gov. Laura Kelly's desk, awaiting action. Other controversial issues — such as a ban on transgender athletes in women's sports, medical marijuana legalization and sports betting — remain untouched.

Here are the highlights of how the policies passed during a busy five months will affect your life.

More conservative Kansas Legislature emerges

The 2020 elections swept into power a new crop of legislators, many of whom brought a more conservative tint to the table.

This was most noticeable in the Kansas Senate, which took the lead on a range of policies, most notably a proposed ban on transgender athletes in girl's sports. 

Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed that proposal, arguing it would negatively impact trans youths, as well as the state's economy. But proponents vowed the fight wasn't over.

"It'll continue to be an issue," said Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover.

Conservative members in the Senate also took the lead on a range of other topics, including a ban on vaccine passports and a failed effort to limit the ability of employers to require immunizations.

They were joined by House colleagues who pushed for an expansion of the state's school choice programs. That was defined by a push to allow students to use public funds to pay for private school tuition, among other expenses.

More:NIL compensation bill for NCAA athletes uncertain after transgender athlete ban fallout

While that proposal failed, a scaled-down school choice proposal was passed last week — and members vowed to redouble their efforts next year to get a more aggressive proposal passed.

"They are not going away," said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta. "The needs of at-risk students are not going away. But this year we were not able to come to a larger, overall consensus."

Lawmakers respond to COVID-19

COVID-19 was a constant theme throughout the session — although the Statehouse managed to avoid a virus outbreak, something which has plagued many other legislatures nationally.

Instead, legislators focused their intent on compensating businesses affected by the pandemic.

More:To Kansas businesses hurt by COVID-19 orders, here's what compensation might come your way

That includes a framework for state and local governments to pay out compensation to small businesses, which were ordered to shut down, an attempt to pre-empt potential lawsuits.

Lawmakers also passed legislation trying to ward off future shutdowns by making local governments give businesses a property tax break for any time they are ordered to close.

Local governments have warned this could impact their ability to provide core services in the future.

It "will make people hesitate," said Trey Cocking, representing the Kansas League of Municipalities, "and I think you are going to have outcomes to property and life that are not good."

Members also overhauled the state's emergency management code, taking aim at how the both the governor and local governments can use their powers going forward.

More:Limits on governor's emergency powers, local COVID-19 orders pass out of Kansas Legislature

The governor will still be able to issue emergency orders, but they will be reviewed and, potentially, revoked at anytime by the Legislature or, when not in session, a top group of legislative leaders, most of whom are Republican.

In addition, individuals who feel aggrieved by a state or local order can petition a court, which has to rule promptly on the matter.

The measure was a compromise between GOP lawmakers and Gov. Laura Kelly and was less aggressive than what was initially proposed.

"This isn't perfect. I didn't agree with everything in here, and I know many of you don't either," Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, said. "But this is a good compromise."

The Kansas House overrides a slate of vetoes from Gov. Laura Kelly, including one rejecting a set of sweeping tax cuts favored by conservatives.

Tax debate returns to Topeka

This year marked the latest continuation of a long-running debate over tax policy, with many members not shy about making comparisons to the ill-fated tax cuts under Gov. Sam Brownback.

The legislation considered most recently is distinct from the Brownback-era policies. 

It primarily aims to allow Kansans to take advantage of 2017 federal tax cuts championed by President Donald Trump.

Most controversially, it gives businesses greater flexibility to bring profits from overseas affiliates on some items, such as intellectual property, back into Kansas without paying taxes on them.

But the bill would also raise the standard deduction, a point of bipartisan agreement.

Republicans cheered it as needed relief for Kansas residents and businesses.

"I don't why we didn't do it three years ago," said Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe.

Gov. Laura Kelly, meanwhile, called the $284 million price tag "reckless," but the Legislature overrode her veto anyway, with Republicans arguing the state's better-than-expected tax revenues as providing a needed financial cushion.

An advance ballot drop box used in Shawnee County last year. Lawmakers passed legislation limiting the number of advance ballots a person can return during an election cycle.

Veto overrides on guns, voting

Lawmakers rejected Kelly's use of the veto pen on a number of other measures as well.

That includes two pieces of legislation altering the state's election laws, a measure allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to conceal carry and a push to establish a license plate emblazoned with the controversial "Don't Tread on Me" flag.

More:Lawmakers disregard and decry Gov. Laura Kelly as they move to sweep away her vetoes

The voting bills were particularly notable, although they were far less drastic than what was considered in other states, such as Georgia and Texas.

One proposal would limit the number of advance ballots a person could return, making it a misdemeanor to knowingly collect more than 10 ballots. Republicans argued it was a common sense measure to mirror the safeguards that are in place for in-person voting.

But Democrats countered that they would make it harder for certain groups, including the disabled and elderly, to get their vote counted. And election officials said the problem of so-called ballot harvesting wasn't present in Kansas.

"I don't see it happening," Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho said. "Maybe I'm a trusting person, but I believe people are being above board."

A separate measure would prevent the judicial and executive branches from altering election law without the legislature's consent, a response to legal battles in Pennsylvania and other swing states during the 2020 election.

Oklahoma is one of the states Kansas advocates for medical marijuana are seeking to model.

Medical marijuana, sports betting remain on the table

Legislators return to Topeka on May 26 for the ceremonial final day of session, which will also likely feature some final remaining legislative business.

But there are a slate of high-profile issues which won't be taken up and instead will be left until 2022.

Most notably, that includes the legalization of medical marijuana, which made historic progress in the Legislature this session. The Kansas House passed a framework for medical cannabis last week, the first time such a measure had passed out of either chamber.

More:Kansas House signs off on medical marijuana bill, giving supporters hope for next session

The debate showed how conservatives have come around on the idea, emphasizing how the proposal has a number of regulations baked in to prevent widespread marijuana use.

"We need to get back, in my opinion, to personal responsibility and trusting that people will use this medical marijuana in a responsible manner, at home, in order to help their seizures or other issues they may have," said Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby.

The Kansas Senate hasn't taken a position on the matter, although the two-year structure of the session will mean they can consider the medical marijuana proposal immediately upon returning next year.

Legislators will also be seeking to reconcile differences on the route the state should take to legalize sports betting, with wide differences between how the industry should be regulated and taxed.

More:Sports wagering legalization faces uncertain future in Kansas House

Pressure will remain high, not just from rabid sports fans but also from a wide range of industry stakeholders, including the state's casinos, who stand to benefit from legalization.

“We’ll see if the people of the state still want sports betting,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said after a bill on the issue failed to pass the House in April. “If they don't, then I think this body has spoken. If they do, they’ll let us know.”

The Capital-Journal's Titus Wu contributed to this report.