Politics & Government

Cheers, jeers as lawmakers speak at forum in Haysville

A forum featuring more than a dozen state legislators from the Wichita area got so lively at times that it seemed like the floor was shaking Saturday morning in Haysville.

Actually, the floor did shake for several seconds, thanks to an earthquake near Fairview, Okla., with a magnitude of 5.1 that brought the forum briefly to a halt.

But it didn’t take long for the gathering to regain its fervor as more than 50 people packed into a conference room of the library cheered, jeered or applauded answers provided by the 13 area legislators to questions written out by audience members on large index cards.

The issues that drew the strongest reactions from the crowd were the state’s voter registration restrictions and school funding.

When asked if the legislators supported legislation that would allow people to register to vote on Election Day, John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said he did.

Carmichael chided existing voter registration regulations, which he said were “based on the belief of some that illegal aliens, undocumented people and others are somehow influencing Kansas elections.”

Secretary of State Kris Kobach has been given the authority to “go out and ferret out these devils, and he’s found six,” Carmichael said. “As it stands right now, 35,000 people are being denied the right to vote based on these foolish rules.”

That drew cheers and applause.

“My colleague says it is a restrictive system,” said Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita. “I would say it’s a secure system.”

That drew groans.

As he pointed out that identification is required to buy alcohol or cash a check or get on an airplane, some in the crowd began shouting him down.

“It’s a constitutional right!” people yelled more than once.

“How do I prevent Art from voting in Clearwater and then he goes over to Haysville and he registers to vote?” Whitmer responded amid the shouts.

“It doesn’t happen,” someone in the crowd responded.

The display prompted Henry Helgerson, D-Eastborough, to rise to his feet.

“I disagree with my colleague here,” Helgerson said of Whitmer. “But I defend his opportunity to say what he likes. I don’t think it’s appropriate or in good taste to start shouting down his opinion.

“I disagree with him … but I’m going to listen to him because that’s how the process works.”

Those words drew applause — and someone who shouted: “I disagree!”

The legislators seemed to agree that one issue will dominate the rest of the 2016 session: school finance.

“That fundamental disagreement we have in Topeka about whether schools are a burden on our budget or an investment in the future is what we’ve been fighting about, really, for the past five years,” said Jim Ward, D-Wichita.

With the Kansas Supreme Court ordering the Legislature on Thursday to fix unfair and unconstitutional school funding by June 30 or risk shutting down school districts statewide, “I’m guessing all of us will spend the rest of the session dealing with that one issue,” Helgerson said.

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger