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Kansas Legislature Scolds Itself Over Slew Of Contentious Bills

Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick says it's not his job to discourage legislators from proposing bills. But if it were, he says, some of the recent legislation might not have come to the floor.
John Milburn
Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick says it's not his job to discourage legislators from proposing bills. But if it were, he says, some of the recent legislation might not have come to the floor.

Some Kansas lawmakers have been getting a lot of attention during this legislative session for controversial bills they've introduced. Some lawmakers argue that the initiatives are distracting from core issues, like the economy, and are casting a negative light on the state.

One recent bill would make it legal for residents here to spank their kids harder, hard enough to leave bruises. There's another bill that supporters say is about religious freedom, but critics say that it offers protection for discrimination. It would allow individuals and businesses to deny services to same-sex couples. That recently attracted a few hundred protesters to the Kansas Statehouse.

The rallies drew opponents like Kate Guimbellot, who carried a sign with a picture of her partner and their 6-year-old son.

"My son asks me about it and I don't know what to tell him," Guimbellot says. "I don't know how to describe how someone could think to take our rights away. This is not about gay rights, this is about human rights."

After the bill passed the Kansas House, it sparked an uproar and lawmakers quickly backtracked and killed it. Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick says there are a record number of bills being introduced, including some that just don't make sense to him.

"I'm not one to tell them 'you can't file a bill.' That's not my job," Merrick says. "If it was, we probably wouldn't have some of this stuff."

Merrick says one of the possible reasons is because there are a lot of new members in the chamber. One of them is Republican Blaine Finch, who says representatives have the right to pursue issues important to them and their constituents.

"At any time a member with a pet project or their own cause can pull the body in a different direction," Finch says. "So I don't think it's fair to lay the blame for that at the feet of any one group."

Kansas, like many other states, also has one party dominating state government. Conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011, and helped usher in new, more conservative Republican majorities in the Legislature. University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire says a lot of states are seeing similar transformations.

"Both of those institutions and a number of others in the country have been pulled much farther to the right than they would have been a generation ago," Squire says.

Now, lawmakers are focused on a state Supreme Court ruling about education funding that came out March 7. But before that, they had not had a big core issue to struggle with. They don't have to write a full budget or wrangle the tax issues they've dealt with in recent years. Squire calls this time of year "silly season," when more controversial, off-topic bills are introduced.

"In part, because the legislature needs something to talk about publicly, because most of the really important decisions are being worked out behind closed doors," he says.

To be fair, not all the controversial bills here have been introduced by Republicans or freshmen. The one allowing parents to spank their children harder was brought by Democrat Gail Finney, and it caught the attention of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Paul Davis, the top Democrat in the Kansas House, says maybe legislators should pack up and go home early because the session isn't focusing on important issues.

"And instead has really devolved into a circus that has brought embarrassment upon the Legislature and upon the state as a whole," Davis says.

But Republican leaders here are quick to label Davis' comments as grandstanding because he's running against incumbent Gov. Brownback. The Speaker of the Kansas House says there's still work to do and he'll try hard to get lawmakers to focus on economic issues for the rest of the session.

Copyright 2014 Kansas Public Radio

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Kansas Public Radio.