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Taxes, vaxes and maps: Kansas Legislature kicks off session

January 10, 2022 GMT
Kansas state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, left, R-Sedgwick, takes a moment before the start of the Senate's session with Sen. Kristen O'Shea, right, R-Topeka, and her 2-month-old son, Leland, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Lawmakers have opened their annual session. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Kansas state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, left, R-Sedgwick, takes a moment before the start of the Senate's session with Sen. Kristen O'Shea, right, R-Topeka, and her 2-month-old son, Leland, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Lawmakers have opened their annual session. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Kansas state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, left, R-Sedgwick, takes a moment before the start of the Senate's session with Sen. Kristen O'Shea, right, R-Topeka, and her 2-month-old son, Leland, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Lawmakers have opened their annual session. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican lawmakers are eager to cut taxes because Kansas is flush with cash, but the annual legislative session that opened Monday is shadowed by redistricting, election year-politics and COVID-19.

With GOP supermajorities in both chambers, lawmakers expect to debate what public schools should — and should not — teach students about race and the role of racism in U.S. history. They also are likely to consider tightening election laws during their 90 scheduled days in session.

And legislators are likely to discuss legalizing marijuana for medical use. Kelly and other Democrats support the idea, and some Republicans have warmed to at least a highly regulated version.

Here’s a look at some key issues:

REVENUE SURPLUS FUELS PUSH FOR TAX CUTS

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Kelly wants to eliminate the state’s 6.5% sales tax on groceries so that a family buying $200 worth of groceries a week would save $676 a year. Lowering or ending the tax has bipartisan support, and about 100 groups, food pantries, businesses and faith organizations, along with several hundred individuals, sent a letter Monday to lawmakers urging them to eliminate the tax. But lawmakers might consider alternatives, such as lowering the tax on all consumer goods.

The governor also has proposed giving a one-time $250 rebate to Kansas residents who filed state income tax returns last year. GOP leaders have said they prefer ongoing income tax cuts.

Senate tax committee Chair Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, said other ideas are on the table, too, including lowering taxes on retirees’ Social Security benefits.

Kansas is in strong shape financially, on pace after months of surplus tax collections to end June with about $3 billion in cash reserves.

CRITICAL RACE THEORY ARGUMENT HEATS UP

Tyson wants to require teachers to post lesson plans online that list reading materials. She said her goal is to enable parents to research those materials so they have a chance to voice any objections.

She and other Republicans also expect a debate on banning critical race theory in public schools. They say many parents became alarmed when they monitored online classes earlier in the pandemic.

Critical race theory argues that racism is systemic in the U.S. and its institutions maintain white people’s dominance. However, the term has come to cover broader diversity initiatives that conservatives oppose.

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The state school board said last year that critical race theory is not part of Kansas’ academic standards. Kelly has called the issue a “nothing burger” and told The Associated Press it has been “conjured up” by people “who have a track record of being sort of anti-public education.”

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said he worries that lawmakers would enable “the most racist parents” to harass teachers and administrators.

GOVERNOR’S RACE, OTHER CONTESTS SHAPE POLICY

Kelly sells herself as a bipartisan problem solver and she’s almost certain to tout big legislative victories in appealing later this year to the moderate GOP and independent voters she needs to win another term. She faces a tough race with three-term Attorney General Derek Schmidt as the presumed Republican nominee.

The election gives Republicans an incentive to ditch Kelly’s proposals and pass GOP ones instead to raise questions about her effectiveness.

Meanwhile, all 125 Kansas House seats are on the ballot in November.

CAN LAWMAKERS AVOID ANOTHER REDISTRICTING IMPASSE?

Election-year politics are intensified by the once-a-decade redrawing of the state’s political boundaries. Kansas must account for shifts in population and make districts as equal in population as possible.

Redistricting has national implications as Republicans seek to regain a U.S. House majority, putting a spotlight on the Kansas City-area district held by the only Kansas Democrat in Congress, Rep. Sharice Davids. Her district is overpopulated and Democrats fear that Republicans will draw out Democratic neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, to hurt her politically.

But to reshape Davids’ district, Republicans must avoid the internal struggle they saw 10 years ago over new legislative districts. The debate grew so contentious that no redistricting plan cleared the Legislature. Three federal judges drew all boundaries; the state had to push back its June candidate filing deadline, and there were far more incumbent-on-incumbent races than lawmakers would have allowed.

REPUBLICANS CONSIDER TIGHTER ELECTION LAWS

GOP lawmakers in Kansas last year joined counterparts in other states in tightening election laws.

Republican Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said he’ll push for legislation this year aimed at making it easier to remove inactive voters from registration lists. Counties can’t remove people from registration lists until they’ve failed to vote in two federal elections.

And legislation to tighten voting laws have carried over from last year’s annual session, including a bill to shorten the deadline for returning mail-in ballots.

GOP CONTINUES PUSH OVER VACCINES, VIRUS MANDATES

The days leading up to the session’s opening saw a surge in new COVID-19 cases in Kansas and hospitals stressed again.

The state had an average of 6,460 new confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases a day for the seven days ending Monday, according to state health department data — more than double the previous pandemic peak in November 2020.

Kelly declared a new emergency Thursday and issued executive orders that eased state licensing rules to make it easier for hospitals and nursing homes to add staff quickly. Lawmakers must decide whether to keep it in effect past 15 days.

But for GOP lawmakers the biggest pandemic issue was following up on legislation enacted during a November special session to make it easier for workers to refuse to comply with vaccine mandates. Some conservatives want to bar private employers from imposing mandates, but others acknowledge the issue is tough because they’ve normally argued for less government regulation of businesses.

Some conservatives would also like to strip the state health department of its power to require new vaccines for school attendance without going through the Legislature.

ABORTION IS ON MANY MINDS

Abortion is usually a major issue facing lawmakers, but not this year. Abortion opponents are waiting for an Aug. 2 statewide vote on a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution that would allow legislators to restrict abortion as much as the federal courts permit.

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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On Twitter, follow John Hanna at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna and Andy Tsubasa Field at https://twitter.com/AndyTsubasaF