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Kansas Legislature Scolds Itself Over Slew Of Contentious Bills

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Kansas Legislature Scolds Itself Over Slew Of Contentious Bills

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Kansas Legislature Scolds Itself Over Slew Of Contentious Bills

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Lawmakers in the state of Kansas have been getting a lot of attention during this legislative session for some controversial bills. They're drawing criticism from editorial writers who went so far as to post an open letter of apology on behalf of the state.

Kansas Public Radio's Stephen Koranda reports.

STEPHEN KORANDA, BYLINE: One recent bill would make it legal for residents here to spank their kids harder, hard enough to leave bruises. There's another bill that supporters say is about religious freedom, but critics say that it offers protection for discrimination. It would allow individuals and businesses to deny services to same-sex couples. That recently attracted a few hundred protesters to the Kansas Statehouse.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...homophobia has to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia has to go.

KORANDA: The rallies drew opponents like Kate Guimbellot, who carried a sign with a picture of her partner and their 6-year-old son.

KATE GUIMBELLOT: And my son asks me about it and I don't know what to tell him. I don't know how to describe how someone can think to take our rights away. This is not about gay rights. This is about human rights.

KORANDA: After the bill passed the Kansas House, it sparked an uproar, and lawmakers quickly backtracked and killed it. Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick says there are a record number of bills being introduced, including some that just don't make sense to him.

REPRESENTATIVE RAY MERRICK: I'm not one to tell them that you can't file a bill. I mean, that's not my job. If it was, we probably wouldn't have some of this stuff.

KORANDA: Merrick says one of the possible reasons is because there are a lot of new members in the chamber. One of them is Republican Blaine Finch, who says representatives have the right to pursue issues important to them and their constituents.

REPRESENTATIVE BLAINE FINCH: At any time a member with a pet project or their own cause can pull the body in a different direction. So I don't think it's fair to lay the blame for that at the feet of any one group.

KORANDA: Kansas, like many other states, also has one party dominating state government. Conservative Republican Governor Sam Brownback took office in 2011 and helped usher in new, more conservative Republican majorities in the Legislature.

University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire says a lot of states are seeing similar transformations.

PEVERILL SQUIRE: Both of those institutions and a number of others in the country have been pulled much farther to the right than they would have been, say, a generation ago.

KORANDA: Now, lawmakers are focused on a state Supreme Court ruling about education funding that just came out. But before that, they had not had a big core issue to struggle with. They don't have to write a full budget or wrangle the tax issues they've dealt with in recent years. Squire calls this time of year silly season when more controversial, off-topic bills are introduced.

SQUIRE: In part, because the legislature needs something to talk about publicly because most of the really important decisions are being worked out behind closed doors.

KORANDA: To be fair, not all the controversial bills here have been introduced by Republicans or freshmen. The one allowing parents to spank their children harder was brought by Democrat Gail Finney, and it caught the attention of Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show."


KORANDA: Paul Davis is the top Democrat in the Kansas House and says maybe legislators should pack up and go home early because the session is not focusing on important issues.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL DAVIS: And instead has really devolved into a circus that has brought embarrassment upon the Legislature and upon the state as a whole.

KORANDA: But Republican leaders here are quick to label Davis' comments as grandstanding because he's running against incumbent Governor Brownback. The speaker of the Kansas House says there's still work to do, and he'll try hard to get lawmakers to focus on economic issues for the rest of the session.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Koranda in Topeka, Kansas.

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