Kansas legislators overturned vetoes from Gov. Laura Kelly on over a half-dozen measures but fell short on some of their most high-profile targets, including an anti-transgender bill and a wide-ranging tax package.
The suite of veto override attempts prompted the most high-profile showdown between Kelly and Republican legislators yet, with the governor vetoing the most bills since taking office in 2019.
Legislators succeeded in enacting a slate of abortion-related measures, new restrictions on food stamp benefits and a creating a new crime of human smuggling.
“This is the day when we send a message to the people of Kansas that we will protect their freedoms,” House Majority Leader Chris Croft, R-Overland Park, said during a House GOP caucus meeting.
In a statement following the override votes, Kelly said she promised “that I’d serve as a check on legislation that is too extreme one way or the other.”
“I’m disappointed some legislators are eager to force through extremist legislation that will hurt our economy and tarnish our reputation as the Free State,” Kelly said. “I strive every day to make Kansas a place where more people want to work and raise a family. These bills will reverse much of the progress we’ve made in recent years.”
Here is how lawmakers fared on overriding Kelly’s vetoes.
Kansas lawmakers split on anti-transgender measures
Lawmakers enacted a sweeping anti-transgender measure, Senate Bill 180, over Kelly’s veto after a dramatic change of vote from a GOP lawmaker. The first-in-the-nation law could require transgender individuals to use public facilities in almost every facet of society that align with their sex assigned at birth. It is almost certain to be challenged in court and it is uncertain how its language will be enforced.
More: Overriding veto, Kansas is first in the nation to enact sweeping anti-transgender measure
Senate Bill 26, which would have banned gender-affirming care in Kansas, failed after opposition from three GOP senators left lawmakers shy of the votes needed to override. The measure would have required the Board of Healing Arts revoke the medical license of any physician who is found to have performed the services. Transgender rights advocates argued the measure was a painful attack on youth, with a range of medical groups saying that gender affirming care is a boost to the mental health of young people.
More: In win for transgender rights advocates, effort to enact Kansas trans health care ban fails
Legislators did succeed in enacting House Bill 2138, which in part mandates school districts separate students by their biological sex for rooming assignments on school sanctioned trips.
They also passed Senate Bill 228, a sweeping bill to modernize the state’s jail statutes that included language that would segregate inmates based on biological sex.
Abortion measures, pregnancy center funding become law
Lawmakers enacted three abortion-related measures in the first legislative session since Kansas voters rejected a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution. The new laws require physicians render care to infants “born alive” and tell patients medically disputed information about medication abortions while sending taxpayer money to anti-abortion counseling centers.
Lawmakers also enacted $2 million for a new program to provide direct support for anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, which Kelly rejected from the state budget using her line item veto powers.
More: Kansas lawmakers override anti-abortion vetoes months after voters spurned Value Them Both
Tax bill rejected, leaving fate of cuts uncertain
A tax cut package headlined by a flat 5.15% income tax proposal has failed — twice — to reach the supermajority required to override. The bill also would have cut corporate income and privilege taxes, cut income taxes for wealthier Social Security recipients, increased the standard deduction with inflation, accelerated the food sales tax cut and cut property taxes for homeowners.
More: Tax relief in limbo as Kansas Senate fails to override veto of flat income tax plan
More: After defeating Kansas flat tax bill, flip-flopping GOP senator loses leadership position
Election law changes die in Kansas Senate
Lawmakers lacked the votes to overturn Kelly’s veto of Senate Bill 209, which would have ended the state’s three-day, post-election window for mail ballots to arrive at the county elections office. Concerns about the increasingly sluggish U.S. Postal Service, particularly in Kansas where mail must be routed to another state to be processed, caused concerns from rural and urban legislators alike. Four Republicans joined all Democrats in leaving the Senate short of the threshold needed to override.
“I think the three-day grace period does exactly what it is supposed to do: the word grace,” Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said. “We are giving grace to those who are disabled. We are giving grace to those who don’t have a vehicle to go to the post office to mail that advanced ballot back. We are giving grace to those who marched with the reverend Dr. MLK on voting rights.”
Proponents say that most states lack a post-election window for ballots to be received and that the election law change would bolster election confidence. “This is a clear end to voting,” Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said.
Legislators enact new requirements for food stamp recipients
Legislators narrowly enacted a bill that would primarily increase work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents receiving food stamps who are 50 to 59 years old. Welfare reforms have been a top priority of GOP lawmakers, but House Bill 2094 is the only measure on the topic to became law this session.
The enhanced work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients increase the hours per week from 20 to 30, or else they must go through an employment training program. Similar changes were imposed on younger beneficiaries last year over Kelly’s veto.
Rep. Francis Awerkamp, R-St. Marys and the chair of the welfare reform committee, dismissed the existing work requirements.
“They’re not required to do anything,” he said. The more rigorous law requires “they just have to do something other than sit on couch for 30 hours a week.”
More: Laura Kelly vetoes bill on food stamp restrictions and work requirements for older Kansans
The only organization supporting the bill was Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Projects, which has lobbied Kansas lawmakers for a host of conservative legislation.
Opponents argue that many of the people affected by the bill are already working and may have reasons they aren’t meeting the new 30-hour threshold, such as a boss not giving them more shifts or instead providing child care for a working relative.
Rep. Linda Featherstone, D-Overland Park, read the lyrics of a Christian song based on Bible verses.
“Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me,” she said. “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. Now enter into the home of my father.”
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, reminded lawmakers that they were voting on food assistance hours before attending the Kansas Chamber’s annual dinner.
“As some of us are dining on filet mignon this evening with the chamber, I hope we will pause a moment to think of those who are doing without,” he said.
More: Kansas Republicans want welfare reform. Here’s what it means for food stamp work requirement.
A letter from 161 organizations including food banks opposed the bill, arguing that it will increase food insecurity and thus increase need for their services. One of the food pantries was in St. Marys.
Awerkamp dismissed the letter.
“I live in St. Marys. I’ve lived in the St. Marys area all my life — I’ve never heard of the St. Marys food pantry,” he said.
The St. Marys food pantry, 201 West Palmer St., operates Wednesday from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the second and fourth weeks of each month.
Human smuggling bill enacted over Democrat concerns
Members easily enacted legislation to create new crimes for human smuggling and trafficking, despite concerns from Democrats and Kelly that it would have unintended consequences to help prosecute unknowing individuals who are transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants and erode due process for immigrants themselves.
Proponents say the concerns over House Bill 2350 are overblown and the measure will only be targeted at those who engage in human smuggling and forced servitude.
“Some people will do anything, give anything or promise anything to come to the United States,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston. “Aren’t we the luckiest people in the world that we get to be here when there are people that are willing to put themselves into slavery just to get here? Who we’re trying to hold accountable with this law is the smuggler.”
The law makes it a felony to to intentionally transport, harbor or conceal someone in exchange for anything of value when they know or should have known the person was in the country illegally and is likely to be exploited.
Rep. Carrie Barth, R-Baldwin City, was one of the sponsors of the bill. She said it targets “coyotes,” an informal word for immigrant smugglers. Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, said her use of the term is evidence the law will result in racial profiling.
Ruiz said many churches will bus parishioners to services, such as one just down her street that picks up families who emigrated from Africa. Now, they could face legal risk, she said.
“Do you have any idea how many churches all around our state are friendly towards immigrants, who are trying to help immigrants become citizens, helping them with money and with food, with housing?” she said.
Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, said employers hiring immigrants will risk becoming smugglers.
“What about the farmer that’s transporting workers to the job site?” he said. “Sounds to me like they would be considered smugglers.”
More: Rebuking Kris Kobach, Kansas legislators strip ‘alien hunt’ amendment from human trafficking bill
GOP fails to revive parents’ bill of rights, gun safety training
Lawmakers fell short in attempting to override Kelly on a series of measures, including a bill that would have allowed parents to pull their children from lessons or courses because of its subject matter.
They also fell short in overriding Kelly on a measure that would have expanded the use of the National Rifle Association’s Eddie Eagle program, as well as a bill to roll back state regulations on child care.
And language to bar diversity, equity and inclusion “oaths” at public universities also failed. Rep. Steven Howe, R-Salina, pointed to examples of Kansas State University and other schools asking applicants to outline their DEI bona fides.
“When governmental entities, including a public university, wish to disseminate an ideology, no matter how acceptable to some, that cannot outweigh an individual’s 1st Amendment rights,” he said.
Rep. Kirk Haskins, D-Topeka, a Baker University professor, said the language was important to ensure applicants fit with a university’s culture — something, he added, that private businesses often do.
“To have this question is good,” Haskins said. “We are overstepping. We don’t do this with any other business organization.”