These days, there's not much opportunity for Kansas liberals, moderates or even moderate Republicans to pass bills that might actually benefit their constituents. The legislative session has instead become a game of defense — against the agenda of a mad-scientist governor who views state policy as an experiment and against tea-party yokels with weird ideas about guns, God, education, women's rights and just about every other issue.
Topeka from January through May, then, has become about mitigating damage and hoping that a few sensible rays of light pass through. It's dire as hell, and even some of the victories from the 2014 session are hard to distinguish from the long list of lowlights.
• One of the only remaining ways to get Republicans to vote in step with Democrats is to invoke military veterans. That's what happened with a bill — now law — brought forward by Keith Humphrey, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party Veterans and Military Families Caucus. It guarantees death benefits to families of fallen American soldiers, even if the federal government is shut down at the time. (Last year, when far-right crybabies shut down the federal government because they hate Obamacare for reasons they have a difficult time articulating, five soldiers from Kansas died, and their families had to wait on funeral expenses until the resolution of that political stunt.) As long as shutdown-related legislation remains a political necessity, this qualifies as a win.
• A bill that would allow public and private employees in Kansas to refuse service to same-sex couples based on religious beliefs sailed through the House (72-49) but died in the Senate after a national uproar. Good news — except for how, you know, 72 people in the House voted in favor of a bill legalizing discrimination against gay citizens. Who are these George Wallace, wrong-side-of-history motherfuckers? From around here, that list includes Charles Macheers (who introduced the bill), Lance Kinzer, Jerry Lunn, Craig McPherson, Keith Esau, Erin Davis, Amanda Grosserode, Brett Hildabrand, John Rubin, Kelly Meigs, Larry Campbell, Ray Merrick, Willie Dove, Marvin Kleeb and Scott Schwab. Here's a question: Just when do all you tired white bigots plan on dying? The rest of us are trying to plan ahead a little, toward a future when you no longer exist.
• A particularly brazen effort to grant tax exemptions to private health clubs passed the Senate but was ultimately defeated. The bill was strongly promoted by Wichita gym owner Rodney Steven II, who dumped $45,000 into the pockets of malleable state senators because he was upset that the YMCA doesn't have to pay the same taxes he does. Hey, asshole: The YMCA isn't just a gym; it's a nonprofit that runs summer camps for inner-city kids, holds workshops for elderly people, and has programs dedicated to fighting obesity and diabetes. You're a for-profit business. It's not the same thing.
• As of last year, it is the law of the land in Kansas that citizens with concealed-carry permits can take their guns into any public building — including schools, libraries and government offices — not protected by metal detectors or security guards. Some cities and counties in Kansas don't love this new, ridiculously loose gun law, and have attempted to pass ordinances within their jurisdictions that would better protect people. To which Gov. Sam Brownback and the gun nuts in Topeka said: Nuh-uh. Local governments are, as of 2014, forbidden from enacting ordinances that restrict the state's open-carry laws. How long until the NRA tells its legislative lackeys to introduce a bill requiring everyone in the state to purchase a gun?
• Another overreach by state lawmakers: the elimination of mortgage registration fees. For the past 90 years, when Kansans purchased a home, they were required to pay to have it recorded by the county — at a cost of 26 cents per $1,000 borrowed. As of July 1, counties will begin a five-year phaseout of those fees. Bad news for basic services in Kansas counties. By 2019, Johnson County alone is projected to lose $10 million as a result of the legislation.
• Medicaid expansion, which would give an estimated 100,000 working Kansans access to health care, saw zero movement. The only law related to the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, in fact, requires the Legislature to approve any future increase. Given that the House and Senate are GOP locks but the governor's seat isn't, any Medicaid expansion in Kansas is virtually impossible for the foreseeable future.
• Many of Kansas' destructive tax policies were enacted during previous legislative sessions. But coinciding with the end of the 2014 session was some interesting news about Brownback's economic experiment. First, Kansas tax revenue in April came in $92 million short of projections and $480 million short on the year. And on May 1, Moody's Investors Service, one of Wall Street's big three credit-rating agencies, downgraded Kansas' state bonds from Aa1 to Aa2, citing "Kansas' relatively sluggish recovery compared with its peers, the use of non-recurring measures to balance the budget, revenue reductions (resulting from tax cuts) which have not been fully offset by recurring spending cuts, and an underfunded retirement system for which the state is not making actually required contributions." Translation: really bad economic policy. Brownback reacted by vaguely blaming Obama for the fact that his state, on his watch, is broke as shit.
Rather than serve as a warning sign, much of Kansas' misguided legislation and Brownbackian economic voodoo, past and present, crossed the state line into Missouri in 2014. (We'll take a look there next week.)
• Hey, but at least it's now legal for Kansas citizens to brew beer in their homes, share it with others and enter it into beer competitions. Sure, they aren't allowed to benefit financially from any such effort, but at least Kansans now don't have to leave their houses in order to cry into their beers. And beer turns out to unite even the ignorant goobers in Topeka; nobody voted against this bill in the state Senate, and only nine opposed it in the House. Brownback signed it in early May. Everybody loves craft beer. Let's have more. Hooray.