Legislative Report - The 2016 Session So Far

The Kansas Legislature returns for the so-called veto session on Wednesday, so this is a good time to give a report on our work in the legislature so far this year. This was our first session as Kansas Interfaith Action, which meant speaking in front of new committees and making new alliances. So in large part, it has been a year of learning. 

We testified on three proposed bills: the first was an extension to the welfare reform bill from last year, which famously prohibited TANF recipients from taking cruises and limited ATM withdrawals to $25 per day – thereby guaranteeing that largely unbanked clients will pay a larger percentage of their limited means in fees. 

We testified against this bill in the House Health and Human Services committee, and this was my favorite one, because I had a theological debate with Rep. Powell, and Rep. Whitmer got his back up when I said (quite accurately, I think) that the legislation was “mean-spirited.” Oh, and he also asked me how I would pay for a more generous welfare system. I said, Well, you could start by fixing the mess you've made of the state budget. Or, you could raise the minimum wage – there's lots of things that could be done to address poverty, if that were really your goal.

 A version of this bill got through the Senate, and when we asked the chair of the House committee whether the Senate bill would go back to his committee, he said that House leadership was afraid that it would become a vehicle for an amendment on Medicaid expansion on the floor of the House, so they weren't going to run it.

The second bill was a refugee resettlement bill. You may remember that Gov. Brownback issued an executive order restricting the resettlement of Syrian refugees. This is illegal, because the federal government has exclusive authority to resettle refugees. This bill would have allowed state or municipal officials to limit or deny resettlement in a particular place based on the “absorptive capacity” of the community, which sounds like it has something to do with paper towels but basically meant schools, childcare facilities, translators, etc. If the state official, in his or her wisdom, determined that the number of refugees would overwhelm this, then the state could prohibit refugees being resettled in that community.

So aside from the entirely subjective nature of the determination of “absorptive capacity”, this also had the same, “the state can't afford it” mentality as the welfare reform bill. At this point I'm reminded of the person who killed both his parents and then asked for mercy from the court because he was an orphan.

So the proponents of this bill were Peggy Mast, Tony Barton and a guy from Frank Gaffney's organization. A lot of fearmongering and Islamophobia – a lot.

The antis were Micah Kubic from the ACLU and me. Unfortunately, I got about 3 minutes (of a 2-hour hearing), which caused a bit of blowback from some of the electeds.

One of the other conferees was Catholic charities, and by the time the week was over we were on a conference call with national refugee resettlement agencies and denominations, who worked up a letter signed by 140 organizations and individuals almost exclusively arguing against the bill from a faith perspective. The bill got out of committee, but on the floor of the House the moderate Republicans voted with the Democrats to send it back to committee, which essentially killed it. In the context of the current Kansas government, getting a bill sent back to committee counts as a big win.

This showed us something that one often sees in the faith life – that when we put energy into something, other energies will find us and join us. It was quite heartening.

There were a couple of gun bills this year also. It's like the magnolia blossoms – every year there's a gun bill. This one would have fixed a loophole in last year's gun bill. Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan was our conferee for that one. Our argument was basically, we don't really care about this bill, but we're opposed to the entire project of eliminating all gun restrictions and this is part of that project, so we're against it. She had a bit of a tussle with a couple of the committee members but by all accounts she acquitted herself admirably.

Looking at the gun issue and the difficult politics of it in Kansas, it's become apparent to us the best angle to approach it is through the “campus carry” issue – allowing conceal carry in university buildings, which is scheduled to begin in June 2017. There's a ton of opposition to this on campuses and it's another year-plus before the law takes effect, so we have some time. A bill to delay campus carry was proposed as an amendment in the Senate but it didn't get through. So after the bill that we testified against passed the committee, we started to ask our moderate friends if they would be open to such an amendment in the House. But then we were told that the bill wouldn't be brought to the floor because of fear of another amendment that would lower the conceal carry age from 21 to 18. As former Royals manager Bob Boone famously said, don't ever say it can't get worse.

We also facilitated a visit by Muslim leaders from around the state to the Capitol, and participated in the Water, Energy and Land Forum.

So all in all we believe it was a good year, an important year. Fix the budget, no campus carry, compassion for the poor and the stranger. These are issues that you can bring to your candidate debates this fall.

What will happen when the legislators return on Wednesday no one knows. We think they wanted to get out of town as fast as possible, but with the economic and budget news continuing to be terrible, some of the legislators seem to be rebelling (finally!) against the governor's failed tax policies. We have to remain wary that some of the bad legislation that didn't make it through earlier in the year doesn't get put into conference committee reports or other ways to sneak it through without full vetting or the opportunity for public response. We'll keep you posted.

 

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