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Barbara Shelly: Legislature running off the rails

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 12 a.m.

The Legislature is running off the rails.

Where to begin? Perhaps with the sonogram procedure that state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, arranged to take place in a meeting of the Public Health and Welfare Committee. That was certainly different.

Anybody who’s been on the Internet knows about the Kansas House thunderously approving a bill that would enable Kansans to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of “religious freedom.” Probably a bad move, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, conceded a couple of days later. This was after businesses, churches and even the conservative Senate president pointed out the hypocrisy of using religion as an excuse to discriminate. Merrick, by the way, voted for the bill.

That genius piece of legislation now appears to be dead, as does last week’s objet d’ ridicule, a bill filed by Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, that would clarify the form and extent of spanking allowed under Kansas law. That one won’t even get a committee hearing.

Another Pilcher-Cook production, a bill to criminalize surrogate parenting, was squelched by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, but not before Pilcher-Cook declared that “you are creating a child purposely that you know is not going to have a biological mother.”

Still alive and kicking are bills to get rid of fluoridated water and make divorces harder to get in Kansas, and a resolution denying climate change. Oh, and Pilcher-Cook wants to make parents opt in if their children are to participate in sex-ed classes.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

The logical conclusion is that Kansas legislators have too much time on their hands. Some appalled government watchers have even proposed a speedy adjournment. That’s tempting, but not quite right.

Yes, the Legislature passed a two-year budget last year, so there’s not as much work in that regard. But lawmakers do have important business.

They need to clean up the mess created by the proof-of-citizenship law that has left scads of Kansans in “suspended” voting status. They should also be working on a creative way to provide health insurance to 150,000 Kansans who make too little to participate in the Affordable Care Act’s new insurance exchanges but too much to qualify for Medicaid under the state’s stingy eligibility guidelines.

I haven’t seen much action on those fronts. But at least legislators are pursuing the annual futile exercise to allow sales of alcoholic beverages in grocery stores.

While the Legislature engages in a surreal comedy hour, Gov. Sam Brownback is busying himself with his re-election campaign and seriously important issues like dwindling aquifer water and environmental consequences of fracking.

But while the governor undoubtedly would love to disassociate himself from the clowns in his Legislature, this is a case of “be careful what you ask for.”

Brownback’s political operatives successfully targeted moderate Republicans in the 2012 elections. Pragmatic lawmakers with years of experience were kicked to the curb and replaced by people with right-wing political leanings and not much else. They didn’t come from traditional apprenticeships like school boards and city governments, but rather from tea party and “limited government” incubators.

The result has been ineptitude.

House members who voted for the misnamed “religious freedom” bill acknowledged afterward they weren’t sure exactly what services could be denied. A committee hearing on a bill to outlaw community broadband service had to be postponed once the bill’s anti-competitive intent became apparent. The voter-registration debacle is a result of lawmakers drafting a bill without anticipating the consequences.

It would be funny if it weren’t so scary. People of Kansas, look at which legislators are embarrassing the state and send them packing at election time. But first, make sure they haven’t screwed up your voter registration.

Barbara Shelly writes for the Kansas City Star.

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