Marijuana, CRT & COVID-19 among top issues for Kansas lawmakers

Capitol Bureau

TOPEKA, (KSNT)— Kansas lawmakers are gaveling in Monday to kick off the first week of legislative session.

A few bills have already been pre-filed in both the House and Senate, but some of the top issues coming down the line range from taxes and education to agriculture, and even pushback on some pandemic restrictions extending from last month’s special session.

LEGALIZING MARIJUANA

Democrats are hoping to make big moves this year. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, told Kansas Capitol Bureau on Friday that their big ticket items include expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana, two issues supporters say are “long overdue.”

“Hopefully, the medical marijuana issue at least continues to get debate,” Rep. Sawyer said. “It passed the House last year. We’re very hopeful to get it through the whole process this year.”

Sawyer along with Assistant Democratic Leader, Representative Jason Probst, announced plans to introduce three amendments to the Kansas constitution this week that expand Medicaid, and legalize recreational and medical marijuana. The amendments will need a simple majority vote to pass, as opposed to two-thirds of both the House and Senate.

If they move forward, Kansans will have the opportunity to vote on the amendments. With enough support, the legislature could enact laws legalizing marijuana and expanding Medicaid by July 1, 2023. 

ELIMINATING THE STATE FOOD SALES TAX

Eliminating the state’s food sales tax is another issue up for debate, and it could gain support on both sides of the aisle.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, D-Kansas, holds axe while announcing “bold new plan” to eliminate the state’s food sales tax. (KSNT/ Rebekah Chung)

Governor Laura Kelly, announced plans to “Axe the Food Tax” in November at a local Dillons Food Store.

“This is not something new. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time,” Gov. Kelly said. “Now we have the funds to do this and to sustain this tax cut over the years”

Kansas is one of seven states in the nation that fully taxes groceries. The state’s food sales tax rate is 6.5%, the second-highest rate in the country. Under the governor’s proposed bill, a Kansas family of 4 could save an average of $500 or more on their grocery bill every year.

Eliminating the state’s food tax was a campaign promise Gov. Laura Kelly made when she ran for election four years ago. Derek Schmidt, Kelly’s republican opponent in the 2022 gubernatorial race, also supports the idea.

WILDFIRE RELIEF

On the Republican side, bills in both the House and Senate focus on recovery for farmers and people impacted by the wildfires exacerbated by high winds in December.

Parts of Western Kansas saw the brunt of the damage, forcing emergency crews to work overtime to put out the flames.

Lyle Pantle, Emergency Manager for the Ellis County Rural Fire Department, told Kansas Capitol Bureau last month that the fires damaged over a hundred thousands of acres of land.

“The wind blew through so quickly, and we’ve had almost every county fire vehicle up here,” Pantle said.

The wildfire swept through four counties, causing a huge amount of damage to crops, cattle and homes. However, many other smaller fires occurred across the state as well, affecting many Kansas residents.

Lawmakers are hoping to help with recovery efforts with a proposal that would provide a sales tax exemption for purchases to reconstruct, repair or replace certain fencing damaged or destroyed by wildfires.

The bill is set to be taken up by both chambers, listed as one of the agenda items for Day 1 of the legislative session. Currently, the measure has been pre-filed as Senate Bill 318 with a similar version in the House.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY

The ongoing debate over whether Critical Race Theory is an issue in Kansas schools has become a hot topic in education, and it may come up this legislative session.

The Kansas State Board of Education voted unanimously in July to not include the teaching as a set standard in Kansas schools, reiterating their message that “Critical race theory is not a part of Kansas’ academic standards and has never been a part of Kansas’ academic standards.”

The Board also released a letter, calling on Kansans to educate themselves about distinctions between the theory and what is currently taught in Kansas schools. The response coming after concerns from some republican groups over similar teachings of “systemic racism” and “bias” being taught in a Manhattan school district.

The subject of Critical Race Theory is currently dominating media headlines and daily conversations for many. Just as we teach our Kansas students to be judicious consumers of information, we encourage all Kansans to educate themselves on what critical race theory (CRT) is and what it isn’t.

KANSAS STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION ON CRT

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, studies the impact of race on legal systems and policies.

The controversial subject has become the center of a national debate, as it’s been criticized as a divisive way to teach racial history by some. Supporters claim that while certain issues may cause discomfort, they need to be discussed.

According to some experts, it rarely appears in primary education classes, but is usually taught in legal classes at the higher education level.

“Many people want to get rid of any talk of institutional racism, and statistics show that there may be a problem in certain institutions, and that’s what a lot of people with critical race theory do want to study,” said political analyst, Dr. Bob Beatty.

The controversy surrounding the subject may push it to the forefront of some education discussions this year.

CORONAVIRUS & PANDEMIC RESTRICTIONS

Republicans are also set to pushback against pandemic restrictions, in an effort to fight for “personal freedoms.”

During a special legislative session in December, the Legislature was able to pass measures shielding workers from coronavirus vaccine mandates. The Attorney General also joined several lawsuits, placing injunctions on President Biden’s order.

Senate President Ty Masterson (left) and Republican Senator Renee Erickson from Wichita (right), listen to testimony on the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate Friday, October 29, 2021. (KSNT Photo/Rebekah Chung)

Bills dealing with other public health measures and government overreach are expected to come up.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, told Kansas Capitol Bureau that she is planning to introduce a bill that would give the state’s legislature authority to decide whether the government is overstepping or not.

Tyson said the proposal would set up a process for lawmakers to weigh new federal laws, and then to decide whether they should be put in place at the state level.

“We definitely are losing our nation and freedoms from within. We have to start standing up for what the founding fathers based our country and the great state on.”

THE BUGET

In the end, lawmakers will have the major task of figuring out where spending priorities lie.

With state revenue up, and the economy getting back in shape, House Minority Leader Sawyer said he’s hoping there will be plans to focus on plans to fully fund areas that, he says, need it most.

“There’s also a chance now to fully fund KPERS retirement, fully fund our highway program, and key programs across the state, like higher education, K-12 education, and continue our commitments to the people of Kansas.”

The 2022 Legislative session starts Monday, January 10, with both chambers set to convene at 2:00p.m. For updates and information on how to watch online, click here.

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