GOP seeks to push Kansas to right over governor’s objections

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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers final questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic during a press briefing Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal via AP)

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature is set to convene its annual session Monday with GOP leaders seeking to wrest control of policy from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly amid their ongoing disputes over how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The session’s 90 days will come amid early and mostly behind-the-scenes political jockeying for the 2022 governor’s race, with Republicans already testing campaign themes for their push to oust Kelly. Republican leaders believe they have a mandate to govern after voters preserved the party’s legislative supermajorities and elected more conservatives in last year’s elections.

“The voters of Kansas, last primary and general, were heard, and the Senate is decidedly more conservative,” said incoming Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop of Wichita, adding that the House also had moved to the right.

Top Republicans have outlined priorities that include cutting income taxes and limiting local government taxing power, both moves that Kelly has previously vetoed.

They also want to make relatively quick work of putting a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution opposed by Kelly on the ballot for voters to consider in 2022. They’re also hoping for a constitutional amendment to end the governor’s power to make state Supreme Court appointments without a Senate vote.

The governor has promised to push again for an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, but Republican leaders dismiss it, making it unlikely to get much attention.

And, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and altering how lawmakers will do their day-to-day business at the Statehouse, a partisan battle is looming over whether the governor or local officials control the state’s response to it and future emergencies.

“We’re also reacting to the voters,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican. “The Legislature the voters just sent matches our agenda and rejected hers.”

Democrats in the House are planning to try to oust one of their own, Rep.-elect Aaron Coleman of Kansas City, Kansas, over multiple issues that include the 20-year-old’s rhetoric on Twitter and past allegations of harassing or threatening girls or young women.

Legislators saw last year’s session shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, which arrived in Kansas in early March and has left the state with one confirmed or probable case for every 12 of the state’s 2.9 million residents and more than 3,100 deaths.

The pandemic will be visible in the Statehouse with less frequent House and Senate debates, lawmakers socially distanced on the floor and in the House galleries and committee rooms reconfigured for more distance and video streaming. At least seven lawmakers, including Ryckman and incoming Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, have had COVID-19.

Lawmakers expect to renew debates that were put on hold because of the pandemic, particularly on taxes and abortion.

Republicans have tried and failed since federal tax cuts championed by departing President Donald Trump were enacted in 2017 to prevent or reverse the higher state income taxes that resulted for some individuals and businesses. GOP leaders argue that what they’re doing is akin to returning a lost wallet found on the street, while Democrats see it as a give-away for the wealthy and big corporations.

Kelly vetoed two GOP tax-cutting bills in 2019, plus a measure last year that would have required cities and counties to hold public hearings before voting to spend new property tax revenues. Suellentrop said Republicans are leaning toward passing similar versions this year and then trying to override the expected Kelly vetoes, something that’s more likely in a more conservative Legislature.

Tax cuts would come in the context of a tight budget and softening economy. A fiscal forecast issued by state officials and legislative researchers in November was more optimistic than the previous ones, and tax collections through December still were 1.7% higher than expected. That for now has all but eliminated a projected shortfall for the budget year beginning July 1, but the state’s employment picture also worsened in December.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents hope to quickly pass a proposed constitutional amendment that failed last year because a few moderate Republicans in the House — now retired or defeated in primaries — resisted putting it on the August primary ballot. The measure would overturn a Kansas Supreme Court decision in 2019 that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state constitution. Kelly, a strong abortion rights supporter, has said the proposed amendment would return Kansas “to the Dark Ages.”

If Republicans remain united, they can put the amendment on the ballot without Democratic votes, just as they can override Kelly vetoes on policy.

“The numbers are not in our favor,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat. “We all know that.”

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