We are finally, officially, halfway through the 2023 session of the Kansas Legislature. The key question for leaders and spectators now becomes: Can you count to 27 or 84? Those vote thresholds in the Senate and House, respectively, override Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes.
With Republicans holding an absolute majority in every house, you might think they have an easy job squashing the Democratic governor. But actual voting margins over the past two days suggest that forcing passage of many right-wing bills will be challenging, if not impossible. Some legislators on the fringes could end up wielding tremendous power.
So this week’s recap starts with the math. I apologize in advance.
Count to two thirds
Republicans hold 29 Senate seats, while Democrats hold 11. That means three GOP members must split from their own party to sustain a veto. In the House, Republicans have an 85-40 lead. Sustaining a veto there requires two GOP defections.
If one of the chambers maintains a veto, the legislation dies. Both must agree for a successful override.
The Senate has a total of 40 members and the House has 125, with replacements requiring a two-thirds majority. The numbers I mention above – 27 and 84 – apply no matter how many members of either house show up. In other words, absent or missing legislators automatically count as “no” votes.
This means, frankly, that the Republican bigwigs have every reason in the world to aim high during this early part of the session. They know their more extreme ideas will hit a wall of resistance, first from Kelly and then from a handful of GOP moderates. On the other hand, the conference today comprises far fewer moderates than it did a couple of years ago. They may be able to score a big win.
Another point: most of the legislation I’m writing about today has been passed by a single chamber. He will have to pass both before he reaches Kelly. There is a lot of history left.
Let’s first look at the laws targeting transgender youth. A ban on youth sports passed House 82-40. Three lawmakers were missing, two Republicans and one Democrat.
All told, the bill has a total of 84 votes in favor and 41 votes against. That’s one short of the number needed to sustain an inevitable Kelly veto. But when you look at the roll call, two Republicans crossed the aisle to vote against the bill while a Democrat defected to the majority. If new Wichita Democrat Ford Carr changes direction, activists could prevent the bill from becoming law again.
Of course, if that happened, Republicans would likely lobby their two opposing voters — Emporia’s Mark Schreiber and Ulysses’ David Younger — to return to the fold.
In the Senate, a bill that would effectively ban gender-affirming health care passed on 11-26. Three members were present but did not vote for or against the bill, denying the leadership a two-thirds majority. If they stick to their guns after an eventual veto, the bill would die.
Once you have those numbers and percentages in mind, the entire landscape of the legislature changes.
That gigantic flat tax plan of 4.74%? It passed the Senate 22 to 17, with six Republicans joining Democrats in voting against it (one member was absent). Unless serious negotiations take place behind the scenes, there are plenty of votes to flip. The Senators also passed a companion bill that ended up eliminating all state and local taxes on food sales by 26 to 16 votes (one member passed and one absent).
Similarly, legislation that would have ended a three-day grace period for early voting and eliminated mailboxes did not receive enough votes to override any vetoes. The grace period elimination vote was 77-45 in the House and 23-17 in the Senate, while the drop-box ban passed 21-19. The road ahead for both seems precarious.
Finally, a measure allowing parents to withdraw their children from classes they deem objectionable only passed House 75-47.
Wide angle view
That said, Statehouse observers shouldn’t take any results for granted. Leaders have many tools up their sleeves to enforce party discipline. Kelly may not choose to veto every controversial bill. Advocacy campaigns can change the minds of lawmakers. By the time we all get to the veto session, the halls of the Statehouse will be filled with feverish conversation, and even the most connected might be surprised once or twice.
Think how different the picture would be, however, if Republican Derek Schmidt had won the race for governor in November. Each of the bills I’m writing about would be guaranteed to become law. State leaders would be grappling with the difficult choice of seeing how much legislation they could pass in a limited amount of time. Instead, they’ll rely on a combination of persuasion, cajoling, sleight of hand, and — yes — even compromise to achieve their goals.
Trump in the lead
Kansas voters are considering a slew of Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump. A new Remington poll shows the former president with 30% support, followed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at 17%. There is a three-way tie for third place, with former Vice President Mike Pence, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all at 9%. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott has 2% support. 6% of voters choose someone else, while 19% are undecided.
That must be smart for Pompeo, a former U.S. representative for Kansas’s 4th district. In a head-to-head comparison, he stood at 36% to Trump’s 39%, with 25% undecided. The poll has good news for DeSantis, though. He beat Trump in a head-to-head matchup, 41% to 33%, with 26% of voters undecided.
Twenty Democratic governors have united to support abortion rights. The Reproductive Freedom Alliance “will act as a firewall to fight and protect providers, patients and all those affected by these attacks on fundamental rights,” according to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the leader of the group and definitely not a presidential candidate. At least not in 2024.
One unlisted governor caught my eye: Kelly. I asked her office for comment, and Communications Director Brianna Johnson emphasized her boss’s support for abortion rights.
“Gov. Kelly will continue to protect the rights of women to make their own private medical decisions,” she said. “Kansas voters just made their voices heard loud and clear on this issue, and she will continue to fight to make sure they are heard here in Kansas.”
Kelcie Moseley-MorrisStates Newsroom’s reproductive rights reporter lists the rest: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Delaware Gov. John Carney, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, Ill. Gov. JB Pritzker, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Mass. Gov. Maura Healey, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers.
Another Spotlight stop
The Kansas Reflector staff has added one more stop to our busy winter-spring tour: Hutchinson. Editor-in-Chief Sherman Smith and yours truly will speak at 6:30 pm on March 20 at Hutchinson Community College. It’s a Monday night, for those of you keeping tabs. We appreciate the Women for Kansas chapter inviting us to its monthly meeting and all are welcome.
Clay Wirestone is opinion editor at Kansas Reflector. Through its opinion section, the Spotlight works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policy or excluded from public debate. He finds information, including how to post your comment, here.