After a late night in Topeka Friday, most of Manhattan’s State legislative delegation stopped by the Manhattan Public Library Saturday afternoon for the League of Women Voters mid-term legislative forum.
Sen. Tom Hawk as well as Reps. Sydney Carlin, Mike Dodson and Ron Highland were in attendance for the event, also sponsored by the American Association of University Women and Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce. The four talked about a variety of topics of interest in this legislative session. Following opening statements by the lawmakers, they were given 90 seconds to respond to an assortment of questions curated by the League and submitted by the audience.
What is the responsibility of the legislature with regard to oversight of public school boards of education? Did you support the parental bill of rights proposed in the House Bill 2662, why or why not?
Carlin: I did see that this was something that we needed to be very, very diligent on. Our role with anything with the board of education, it’s their business. I mean, in my opinion, the legislature should not be involved in the development of the curriculum of the schools, what’s in the libraries or what’s in the lesson plans. I just think we’re overreaching when we get into other elected officials responsibilities. I think we have oversight just because the public comes to us maybe a little bit more frequently than they do to the school board members. They’re not as highly visible. So we may have the information come to us that you would like us to carry forward — and we do that, but we also can network with those school board members and go through the board of education office and work with those issues with the staff.
I did vote no on the parents bill of rights bill, although it had been pared down and was improved, it still did not seem to me at the time to be the thing to do. And I hope we can get a veto on that.
Dodson: My belief is that we’ve got a heck of a lot of pressure that we’ve placed off the schools. I had a conference down in Salina with a bunch of people from across the spectrum in the education business and teachers are tired. They’re frustrated. They feel underappreciated. And you know, when you try to look at the source I went back up to the constitution and looked in Article 6, Article 6 has got one sentence. Now everybody keeps telling me that the Kansas Board of Education is a sole authority on schools — from reading one sentence, I don’t get that flavor at all. So I think we have to be more proactive. You know, this is not 1950. We have got to get everybody on board with where we need to be in the future of education.
So we had an education bill and I’ll be glad to cover this with anybody. There’s five elements in here. We had a 10-page bill on the question that you ask about, the parental bill of rights. That was pared down to a two-pager and it’s got 12 elements in it. So it was far more reasonable than where we started. I mean, the first one — I talked to Eric [Reid] and Marvin [Wade] and a couple of principals and you know, it is onerous […] in that first bill. So I think this 12 is a reasonable place to land, at least in the time being. And then I would say, we’ve got to work on the board of education, because we we’ve just gotta get this tension released between the parents and the people that take of the kids during the day.
Highland: The bill that we did pass across the House floor was a very pared down bill from what everybody saw and we got so many emails about. But one of the things we have to remember is, yes, in the constitution we have a state school board and they give powers to the local school boards — but we are the ones that receive all the complaints. I mean, thousands of them and they want us to solve all the problems. We live in a society now where people will not go confront the problem is, they want someone else to solve it for them. And that’s a big problem in our country and in our state. So when people talk to me about it, I say go talk to your school board member. That’s the only ones that can really solve your problem.
Or if it’s beyond that, go talk to your state school board member; they’re duly elected and that’s their job. So I refer people to them, that’s their job. And I voted for the new pared down version, I felt it was reasonable. And I think in the future, we have to start delegating and saying to folks, you know, go deal with the problem yourself. We can’t solve all the problems. I’m not an attorney and I can’t represent you, but I will do everything I can for you. But at the legislator, there’s so much frustration. Somebody wants to do something and that’s always a danger. When you get late in the session, somebody wants to do something. You gotta be careful.
Hawk: As a former teacher and administrator in our public schools for 33 years, I feel really strongly about this. It was Senate bill 58 was the conference committee, if you wanna look it up. It passed the House, 67-46 yesterday the Senate 23-15. Those are not veto proof. I’m hoping the governor will veto that and the reason I think it’s important to veto that is we really do have a constitution, Article 6. I believe in local control. If you ask any legislator, depending on what their philosophy is on any given bill, they’ll say they also believe in local control and that’s the way we set it up in Kansas with the state school board. It has self-executing powers and I think we get out of our lane on a lot of things.
Now you have to look at what’s the national agenda here. This issue didn’t come to us from Kansas. It came from out of the state as well as some of our election laws. And there is a group that really wants to defund public education, promote private schools and there’s another group that doesn’t want us to teach accurate history. So they want to overpower parents, I think, in some groups to sort of stir things up. And I also look at the national scene — the more we get stirred up, the less democracy works. And yes, I believe every parent should be concerned. We want parental involvement. We want to have engagement of parents with their kids. Parents are the best teachers for their kids, but it’s a partnership and we don’t want to demoralize our teachers. And many of them are because initially this bill said you had to have your curriculum out and online a year in advance. Well, Ukraine was not something we expected. I hope teachers are talking about Ukraine. And so you have to change your lesson plans sometimes on a daily basis to adjust to kids. And we have suicides in schools. You gotta deal with that too. Kids sometimes come to school emotionally upset. We calm them down. We become that force that helps them get steady so that they can become productive adults.
What is your position on bills concerning voting, such as changes to voter registration dates, advance voting, mail-in ballot date changes, drop boxes, registration purges, and the validation of voting processes? Did you support House Bill 2056? Why or why not?
Dodson: We’ve got a problem here too. I mean, we have enough problems, but on elections — I’m on the elections committee and you’re constantly fighting kind of this hysteria and fringe groups that have that just won’t let go of conspiracy theories. It doesn’t mean they’re evil people. It just means they’re very, very hard to dissuade. So, when those bills come through, you know, you really have to have some people in there who have the right intentions about making sure we allow people to vote. When Scott Schwab, the secretary of state comes in, I mean he came in probably half the time that we’re meeting just because that’s his business. And I think he ran a great election. He keeps saying that this was the most secure election he’s ever run now, just because you say it’s secure doesn’t necessarily mean that all the bases are covered. It’s in accordance with Kansas law. So some of the things we’re doing are some tweaks to make sure that our counties are supported when it comes to running elections. So I want drop boxes. I want people to vote in advance and we have stuff in there already.
The poll boxes have to be registered and secured in crypto by the secretary of state approved systems. A voting machine cannot transmit out of the machine to any connection. So those are the facts, as much as you hear on the conspiracy about everybody knows what’s going on. So protecting elections, I guess my bottom line on this is I would like everybody to understand what Kansas law says about elections. That’s why we have conspiracy theories. When we had the objection to five other states, how many people in Kansas do you think had any idea what the laws are on those other five states? They probably didn’t even know what the laws are in Kansas. So it is all hysteria. We’ve just gotta get this stuff back in the box.
Highland: No truer words have been said. We do get a lot of emails and many of them were on elections. We have the group out here that says it was flawed and we have the group over here that says it was fine. And so we each have to do our own little research down there. So we talk to the secretary of state and we looked at the results of the last election. And we looked at, there is a requirement in our law for audits to take place in every county. And then if they find even one problem, then they expand that audit. We don’t have a problem in Kansas. Now for the future, if you want to eliminate all the problems let’s go back to the paper ballot. Everybody do a paper ballot, get rid of all the machines then you get rid of all the arguments.
Let’s go back to the simple way. And I grew up, you went and you voted on election day. You fill out your ballot and you handed it in. And I, I think if we’re going to eliminate all the hysteria and all the arguments against and for and everything else and electronics, let’s go back to paper ballot. And […] in that election committee, they talked about watermarked ballots. And you can eliminate all kinds of problems with this. So I’m in favor of some election reform to tighten it up, although I do believe in our state we did not have a big problem at all. And it’s been proven over and over and over again. I’m quite frankly tired of talking about it.
Hawk: If you wanna look at how the elections turned out, if anybody should be upset about elections it should be Democrats in Kansas. And I’m kind of amazed that the people that are trying to discredit the elections seem to be in the other party. I know Scott Schwab, our secretary of state, served with him in the House, and I do believe him that we have secure elections by our standards. And I think he works and does very well with his staff to do that plus our local election officials. So I did not vote for that bill last night. I think there are several things wrong with it. I would agree that it was improved, but it’s cutting out the number of ballot boxes that could be available or drop boxes as you call them.
I think our focus is entirely wrong. We ought to be making elections easier to do not harder and encouraging people to vote. I don’t always believe in conspiracy theories, but I really wonder if you want to cause lack of confidence in our elections — we have at the national level, the big lie — we have people who really want to discredit our elections and that would actually hurt democracy. So I think there’s a lot at stake. I think it’s important for us as legislators to give our voters confidence in our elections. And I think we have a lot of good things that happen. I’d like to encourage people to have more people vote. I think it’s a civic responsibility to do that. And the group that’s stirring this up, that was the only proponent is, again, this out-of-state Florida group, the [Opportunity Solutions]. And so I think, while I don’t want to discredit anybody that testifies sometimes you have to look at where is this bad information coming from that stirs people up.
Carlin: We had been briefed on that just before we adjourned. Thank you. I am tempted to support it, but I have to review it again. I’m concerned about the drop box limitations that may or may not be in the bill at this time, because of the way the conference committees work I do not know. I don’t have a problem with purging the voter files because I think it helps us as candidates not to send out 3000 letters where people are moved and gone. And I think it, it is something that I appreciate, and it’s not so bad. You have eight years, basically, before you’re taking off the roles, and if you care about government and what’s going on, you ought to take care of that. I think the League does a good job of promoting that, that it’s important to vote.
And Scott Schwab has done a good job and he does care. And also our local county election office is doing a great job, so they will do all they can do.
How would you evaluate the latest redistricting process? Do you support redistricting maps proposed by the Kansas legislature? What worked and what needs to be changed for the future?
Highland: Well, redistricting, it’s the Senate’s fault.
The Senate is responsible for drawing the constitutional boundaries, the new constitutional maps, their maps and the school board maps. And the House is responsible for drawing the House maps. And I don’t know about the Senate, but in the House it was handled very well. There were very few arguments. There were a couple people that were upset out of 125, and that’s really good quite frankly. In Western Kansas, because they lost population, they lost a district and that district number was moved to the east side. 80 counties lost population in Kansas. And that shift will continue. Every 10 years it’s going to continue unless something drastic changes.
The process is the process. You can call it gerrymandering, and I think on the congressional maps the Senate may be blamed for a little bit of that. That’s in the courts. The courts will decide that one, if they did the job correctly or not. It’s a good thing because 10 years ago, the House and the Senate could not agree and it went to the courts. They drew the lines. That’s why the districts, because they hired a computer guy and said draw the lines, we need this much population in each one. And so my district was a really funky looking one and many of them were. So with that, I will turn it over to my Senate colleague for his defense.
Hawk: Ron, and sometimes it’s hard to defend things that have problems with them and I think there’s one inherent problem. I think several groups appointed this out. I think we didn’t let the fox draw the map for the hen house. The legislature shouldn’t draw their own maps. It’s going to be too political. There should be a nonpartisan commission that does that. And I think what happened 10 years ago shows that that’s probably a much better way to do it. It was mentioned the district court, I think, in Wyandotte County tomorrow is hearing this case on the congressional maps. I was pleased to see the House, actually except for a few people that don’t usually agree with what happens in the House anyway, that got sort of drawn out of some of their districts.
So it’s kind of interesting to see people fight in the House and we feel good about that in the Senate. And our Senate maps were not too bad. We had a couple colleagues of mine that are winding up running against each other and you try to avoid that. And my own district, because we changed the constitution two years ago so we counted college students and Fort Riley people in our camp will be just Riley County. And being contiguous and being a community of interest really fits that definition. So it’s probably good for the voters of Riley County to have a Senate that’s just Riley County.
Carlin: I think that we started out with the flawed process when we began the public hearings ahead of the census information. That just absolutely needed to be adjusted, and there was no purpose at all. And the people that went to the university and spoke for our public hearing, all we could say is take care of us. We know that the numbers aren’t out and we’d like you to come back and then it just kind of got away from people after that. It wasn’t a people process anymore. The League of Women Voters map was absolutely wonderful. And I looked at that map and then I compared it to some other maps that we have of Kansas of different kinds of issues [and]how they’re split up. And you had contiguous groups of interested people all throughout the state and the numbers worked out.
And of course, you know, that was somebody else’s map so that wasn’t gonna work. Wyandotte County was messed up in every map. It’s a very highly democratic area. It’s a very low income area. It needs attention, economically. I think that one of the things we need to do is it points out to me that we need to give attention to that area as a state. Lawrence is now in with Manhattan for congressional districts, just the City of Lawrence. And I’m happy with my district. I lost some of Northview and above, towards the county shops area, to Ron [Highland]. I lost 8,000 people. So I was concerned that I would still have people that were going to stay around in Manhattan over time. And I talked with some folks about that and I think we did get a good balance there.
Dodson: So the town hall, you know, I attended four of them because they were virtual and there was like 12 people. So that’s a little disappointing, you know, when you’re really doing something that’s important.
So the net gain in the state of Kansas was 89,000. Now you have to do the math, because we lost more than 89,000 in the West and Southeast. And then we gained more than 89,000 to make up that difference around Johnson County and Wyandotte. So Steven Johnson, who had the area just south of Salina, is running for treasurer. So that was an easy harvest. As Ron said, they took that district and they moved it to Johnson County. So when you try to draw those lines, it really becomes difficult particularly around Wichita, Johnson county, Wyandotte. Johnson County had — each one of those pieces we are representing 25,503 people. And the Senate is about three times that many. [Dodson later noted the federal split divides the State into four districts of 750,000 residents.] So when you get in Johnson County, that is more than just one representative. So they had to draw a line someplace. You can’t have both Johnson county and Wyandotte together. It won’t work. So that’s why the map, all this fuss came over Wyandotte and people make up all kinds of things. And I have some sympathy because I don’t know the area. So I don’t know what drawing that along that highway meant. But, I mean, that was most of the upset. Because we’ve got Sharice Davids, uh, who feels that, you know, she, she lost a little support by the way that line is drawn. I just don’t know because I’m not familiar.
Why is Kansas not accepting Medicaid funds from the federal government?
Would you like me to [elaborate]? Politics.
I don’t care what the issue is. There’s always some truth on both sides or multiple sides of any issue. And it’s not me and my caucus, nor is it the governor that doesn’t want to expand Medicaid in Kansas, nor is it a majority of the Republicans in the Senate, at least at one time before the last election. Leadership did not want to have Medicaid expanded and they prevented us from ever having a bill come out of committee and come up on the floor and it takes two thirds vote to move a bill out of committee if the chair won’t work it and get it passed. And we were short one or two votes when we tried to move it out of committee. So it really is politics.
This year, because of some of the ARPA money or the COVID money we’ve gotten, and the favorable called FMAP in terms of how they calculate how much money you get through Medicaid through the feds […] we’re gonna lose $86 million in general fund just because we didn’t expand Medicaid this year. And I’m still hopeful that maybe we could get a vote on that in the veto session. It’s politically highly unlikely that that will happen. We have 150,000 to 160,000 people that are working poor that need to have that benefit. Costs are going up. It’s hurting our rural hospitals, but there is this notion that the money’s gonna run out and the state would have to pick that cost up. And that might discourage people from going out and working and getting their Medicaid. I don’t think that’s true.
Carlin: In 2011, I was sitting in a conference in some other State for Council of State Governments when I got the notice that Gov. Brownback had refused the money for Medicaid expansion. At the time, the governor was the one who was supposed to accept the money and move forward so that it didn’t take forever. Move it right on. Well, that didn’t happen. And then he brought back a bill and the legislature passed it that required the legislature to vote to have Medicaid expansion. So the next couple of elections we elected people that said they wanted Medicaid expansion, but leadership would not bring that at vote to the floor.
We have an outside group called ALEC. I don’t know what it stands for — trouble, I think — and it works nationally against these things. We are one of, what, 12 States, maybe 11 now, that has not gone into Medicaid expansion. And there are people that, I guess, feel that someone might not work. And we did have another working bill this year. You have to do so many hours of work or you can’t get your TANF. And so we keep tightening down on poor people. So that’s what’s happening, it’s a wedge issue. You know, abortion is on the constitutional amendment this year. So what if that goes away, then what are they gonna do for a wedge issue?
Dodson: It’s not that I don’t agree with both of my colleagues here, but, the dynamics of politics; the Republican National Committee, the Republican Kansas Committee, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce all exert pressure. So in order to get a fair hearing for a bill, you have to get it out the committee. Just yesterday we had kind of a surprise, this had to do with APRNs. The excuse that’s been used for about five years is that you couldn’t get the APRNs together with the medical community, particularly the Board of Healing Arts. Well, I think everybody said, I just don’t think there’s any chance at all to get them a fair hearing. So we passed that bill last night. Now when I mention referendums in Kansas, if you look at the surveys — there’s overwhelming support for Medicaid expansion. That’s why I say if the people focus on a couple of things, education and then Medicaid, if that’s what everybody wants we’re going have to have a referendum. Because until we change committee heads or leadership up there, it’s not gonna come through.
I just believe in having fair hearings for things so you can sort it out.
Highland: I think this is one of those issues that we need to study very carefully. We need to look at States that have done it and what it’s costing them and so we can kind of see what the future might be like. Yes, we have the money now. We could do this. That’s not the problem. But the 160,000 that’s always discussed. We have the money. Why don’t we devise a system within our State to take care of those folks now, instead of fighting over what could be. The money’s there, let’s do it now. But they all agree on one thing, politics are involved and a lot of pressures we receive.
I brought the elevator bill and the outside groups hated it and I will be marked down severely because of it, but for me it was a safety issue. I help develop and write the amusement park bill and the testimony that we heard in that committee I don’t want to ever have anybody else go through again. So let’s take care of it now, before we do have an accident and have to deal with.
But on the Medicaid, I think we could solve our problem internally in our state. We need to study the outside states that have done it and come up with a reasonable answer to the situation. I’m not against whatever’s best for the people, as long as the people understand thoroughly about the issue, which is a big problem in our state.
The forum ended with break-out sessions with the legislators. A livestream by the League can be found online at the LoWV Facebook here.
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