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Taxes, trans rights, abortion hot as Kansas legislative deadline looms

Stephen Koranda

Kansas lawmakers are heading into four intense days ahead of an annual deadline on Thursday to have legislation clear the state Legislature.

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers are headed Monday into four intense days ahead of an annual “Drop Dead Day” deadline that could see them wrap up their work on rolling back transgender rights, imposing new abortion restrictions and cutting taxes.

Most policy bills and the bulk of the next state budget are supposed to clear the Republican-controlled Legislature by the close of business Thursday. Lawmakers then plan to take their annual spring break to give Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly time to sign or veto the bills they've approved before they reconvene April 26 to finish the last of their business for the year.

While lawmakers often have a few big bills that they can't finish by Drop Dead Day, their goal is to clear their agenda as much as possible so that the late-April wrapup lasts a week or less and focuses on completing the budget and possibly overriding vetoes.

Here's a look at where major issues stand.

Transgender rights

The House has until Thursday to try to override Kelly's veto of a bill that would ban transgender athletes from girls' and women's school and club sports, starting in kindergarten.

Supporters need a two-thirds majority, 84 of 125 votes, and GOP leaders expect the vote to be close enough that they have been waiting until no more than one of the 85 Republicans is absent. If the House votes to override, a vote could follow quickly in the Senate, where an override appears likely.

Both chambers have passed versions of a bill to prevent transgender people from using restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities in line with their current gender identifies and to block them from changing their driver's licenses to reflect their current identities. Senators passed it first and must decide whether to accept House changes or demand negotations.

A bill aimed at ending gender-affirming care for minors has passed the Senate but has not cleared a committee in the House. However, the Legislature's rules would allow senators and House members negotiating on the bathroom bill or another health measure to slip in language on gender-affirming care.

During a recent rally at the Statehouse, Kelly told LGBTQ-rights advocates and LGBTQ youth, “I will continue to stand up for you, protect your rights and call out and condemn any speech or behavior or veto any bill that aims to harm or discriminate against you.”

Abortion restrictions

Republican lawmakers are pushing for new anti-abortion laws, though their options were limited after voters in August decisively affirmed that the state constitution protects abortion rights.

Both chambers have approved a version of a bill dealing with live births during abortion procedures, similar to a proposed law that Montana voters rejected in November. It would require a doctor to immediately transport a newborn to a hospital, even if the doctor expected it to die quickly.

The House approved the measure first and must consider Senate amendments. The two chambers' differences are minor, so the House could approve the Senate version to send it to Kelly.

Yet the House also could demand negotiations with the Senate because of a second anti-abortion bill.

It's a House-passed bill to require abortion providers to tell patients that they might be able to reverse a medication abortion after taking the first of the usual two drugs, something experts dispute. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says there is no scientific evidence that the “reversal” method, involving using the hormone progesterone in place of the second abortion medication, is safe or effective.

While the Senate hasn't considered the measure, it has moved quickly in the past on anti-abortion measures. But passage could go even more quickly if lawmakers slipped the “reversal” language into the bill on live births during negotiations.

Kelly is a strong abortion rights supporter and is expected to veto both proposals. She vetoed a version of the medication “reversal” bill in 2019.

Tax cuts

The state began the year flush with bulging revenues and that prompted high, bipartisan interest in cutting taxes. Tax cuts appear likely to top $1.4 billion over three years.

Kelly and other Democrats want to immediately eliminate the state's sales tax on groceries, now 4% and set to go to zero at the start of 2025. The House has a plan to go to zero on July 1, while the Senate would wait until Jan. 1, 2024.

The governor also proposed exempting more of retirees' Social Security income from state income taxes, but the Senate voted to zero them out.

Republicans are pushing to collapse the state's three individual income tax brackets into one. The House's proposal is a tax rate of 5.25%, while the Senate's plan is a rate of 4.75%. The top rate now is 5.7%.

Education policy

Republicans continue to pursue “school choice” proposals despite Kelly's lack of enthusiasm for them. But the House and Senate are far apart on a bill, and they're negotiating over the final version.

The Senate approved an expansion of an existing program that gives an income tax credit to people and companies donating to scholarship funds that help at-risk students leave public schools for private ones. The House narrowly approved a bill that would move state education dollars into savings accounts for parents who want private or home schooling for their children.

The House and Senate also are negotiating over the final version of a bill that would allow parents of public school students to object to a lesson or activity that “impairs the parent’s sincerely held beliefs, values or principles,” and to remove the student from the classroom.

Both the separate House and Senate versions of the next annual state budget include a provision barring higher education institutions from requiring job applicants to express support for diversity, equity and inclusion programs or to base hiring decisions on a candidate's views on the subject.

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