Kansas lawmakers open session clouded by COVID, DC violence
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators opened their annual session Monday with new leaders in the Senate, new lawmakers in a quarter of the seats and a top Republican acknowledging that he’s asked for extra security.
The 90-day session began amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in one confirmed or probable case for one in every 12 of the state’s 2.9 million residents and killed 3,255 over the past 10 months. But the GOP-controlled Legislature also started its work for the year under the shadow of last week’s mob violence in Washington in which extremist supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying his election loss.
The FBI warned Monday of potential armed protests in Washington and many states by Trump loyalists ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Jan. 20. Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said he has asked for extra security from the Kansas Highway Patrol, which oversees the Kansas Capitol Police.
“We’re hopeful that things, people, remain calm and the democratic process can continue,” Ryckman said.
While the pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington in a failed insurrection that left five people dead, about 200 Trump supporters rallied at the Kansas Statehouse. But their event Wednesday in Topeka was peaceful, and when they entered the Statehouse afterward, they came through its security checkpoint. No damage or arrests were reported.
Several legislators said they have confidence in the Capitol Police’s ability to prevent a serious incident at the Statehouse. The Highway Patrol is under the control of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
“Our office is aware of the heightened risks being reported, and we are taking all threats seriously,” said Kelly spokesperson Lauren Fitzgerald.
The Legislature’s business Monday included ratifying Republican lawmakers’ selection of the House speaker and speaker pro tem and the Senate president and vice president. Because those positions are mentioned in the Kansas Constitution, the full chamber must vote on them, but by tradition, approval of the majority party’s choice is a formality.
The new Senate president and majority leader are Wichita-area Republicans Ty Masterson and Gene Suellentrop. They replace GOP leaders who did not seek re-election last year.
The new minority leader is Lenexa Democrat Dinah Sykes. She replaces the longest-serving legislator in state history, former Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who unexpectedly lost his seat last year.
Twenty-eight of the House’s 125 members are new. Fourteen of 40 senators are new, though seven previously served in the House.
But the House’s top leaders all returned from last year. Ryckman became the first speaker in history elected to a third consecutive two-year term.
This year’s 90-day session will be marked by COVID-19 precautions. About half of the House’s 165 members will be seated in its galleries to allow for social distancing, while senators will take over space on the floor of their chamber normally reserved for visitors and reporters.
The Legislature spent $3 million to upgrade its technology for live video and audio streaming of its meetings and so that people could participate remotely.
“We have an added duty this session, a duty to keep each other safe,” Ryckman told his colleagues.
In the Senate, most GOP members were seen without masks throughout the chamber’s session. Democratic senators wore masks throughout.
Masterson didn’t wear a mask during the session, nor did his family seated at the front of the chamber. As a family, he said later, they didn’t need to be socially distanced from each other under federal health guidelines, and he remained 6 feet from others.
The new Senate president had COVID-19 in the fall, one of at least seven lawmakers who were infected, also including Ryckman.
“(To) those who are no longer with us, to those in our very chamber today who have recently lost someone close to them, please know we are thinking about you and praying for you,” Masterson said in a speech to fellow senators.
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.