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Kansas lawmakers discuss challenges ahead as legislative session kicks off

Published: Jan. 11, 2021 at 6:17 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Kansas lawmakers return to Topeka with the start of another legislative session. While Monday (Jan. 11) was largely ceremonial, the days and weeks ahead will not be easy. Eyewitness News on Monday spoke with some lawmakers representing the Wichita area about the work and challenges they’ll be facing.

“Overall, I think it’s going to be a very interesting session,” said Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita.

The 2021 legislative session is shaping up to be one of the toughest in recent history as the early days will be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are ready to get back to work, they’re ready to open up the economy, get jobs back and kind of get back to the new normal, whatever that looks like,” said Rep. Nick Hoheisel, R-Wichita.

One of the first priorities for some lawmakers surrounds the Kansas Emergency Management Act.

“Got to make sure those checks and balances are in there for future pandemics and for the duration of this pandemic, whatever that looks like,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston. “There really is bipartisan support to look at, how do we fix that, longterm.’”

Some provisions in the COVID-19 package passed in last year’s special session are set to expire in two weeks. For Wichita Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat, the best course is to extend the provisions in place and recess until spring.

“(I) believe it is very possible that we may not make it through a 90-day session, that we’re going to have people sick with COVID-19,” he said. “We already have legislators sick. We have legislative staffers sick. We’re now all back here together.”

Other pandemic items in the mix include addressing the backlog in the court system, liability protection for nursing homes, and unemployment. That list goes on. Some lawmakers are hoping to start anew after last year’s session ended abruptly due to the pandemic.

“Many of those bills made it halfway through the process before COVID shut us down,” Owens said.

Owens said some of those bills were looking at criminal justice reforms like substance abuse treatment. A regional mental health treatment center is an idea getting support from both parties.

“Our prisons and our local jails, they’re like over 30 percent just mental health patients that are in there because there’s no place to put them,” Finney said. “So we really need to make that a top priority as well.”

A state constitutional amendment on abortion, income tax cuts and Medicaid expansion are back. It’s also a congressional redistricting year.

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