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Noonletter, Dec. 3, 2018

Crysta Henthorne
Kansas News Service

Leaders of the pack

Republicans in the Kansas House picked a more conservative lawmaker Monday as their No. 2 guy, signaling possible trouble for Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly.

The GOP caucus elevated Dan Hawkins of Wichita to the majority leader spot previously held by Don Hineman of Dighton on a 48-35 tally. That puts a conservative in the slot held by a moderate as chief lieutenant to House Speaker Ron Ryckman of Olathe. He was re-elected by his caucus 84-4.

So that means tougher sledding when Kelly, House Democrats and Republican moderates want to push for Medicaid expansion — a holy grail that’s fallen out of reach since Obamacare went into effect and offered federal money for most of the cost of covering some 150,000 more low-income adults with health insurance.

The leadership change doesn’t give conservatives any more votes to block Medicaid expansion. Lawmakers have passed the effort before, but they didn’t have large enough numbers to override a Republican governor’s veto.

But with Hawkins as majority leader, conservatives could gain an edge on whether and how such votes come up in the House.

On the other side of the aisle, Tom Sawyer replaced Jim Ward for minority leader. Both are Wichita Democrats.

Judgment play

Kelly hasn’t taken office yet, but she’s already surrendered some small bit of power.

For decades, the process of picking state appeals court judges went like this. A group of lawyers and lay people sifted through applications and gave the governor a short list to pick from.

That changed when Sam Brownback was governor. He did away with the screening panel (of unelected folks) and made his choices directly. In theory, that gave him the power to choose from a wider pool of possible judges, and to make more ideological appointments (albeit still subject to approval from the state Senate).

Kelly, reports Nomin Ujiyediin, now is going back to the old, outsourced screening process. In doing so, she’s giving up some autonomy in the process by limiting her picks to the shortlist she’s presented.

Day of mourning

Gov. Jeff Colyer, who once served as a fellow in the George H.W. Bush White House, is closing state offices on Wednesday as a day of mourning for the former president.

He issued an executive order on Monday, saying, in part, “President Bush’s courage, dedication and leadership were evident throughout his lifetime of public service.”

Gas tax alert

A panel of state lawmakers has been looking at the state’s transportation needs for quite a while. The study has left the group fretting about paying for building new roads and the upkeep on highways that already exist.

Stephen Koranda reports that the panel’s plan to find $600 million to finish delayed highway projects and start new ones looks, well, bleak.

“My father used to tell me, some people have a steak appetite but they only have a hamburger budget,” said Democratic state Representative Henry Helgerson. He’s worried about highway funding being in constant competition with money for other state services. For instance, schools. “That’s exactly where we are with this highway bill.”

A gas tax increase could, controversially, be in the works.

Hemp, yes; work requirements for food aid? not so much

Ongoing negotiations in the federal farm bill — with very real implications for Kansas — suggest Washington may soon be on board for legalized hemp (the no-high, textile member of the cannabis family).

Some news outlets are reporting that U.S. House Republicans backed off of a controversial proposal to place stricter work requirements on federal food aid recipients.

Harvest Public Media reports that changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that have been pushed by Republicans to get more people in the job market, may yet come. Just not necessarily in the farm bill. Democrats have said they’d block the farm bill to stop those work requirements, which they see as punitive and ineffective.

The skids appear to be greased for legalizing hemp production. For starters, Senate boss Mitch McConnell comes from Kentucky, a state that’s beginning to bank on the crop. In addition, hemp’s gotten a legal OK in Kansas and 35 other states.

More hemp

Democrats chose a self-described “social justice activist,” who runs two stores selling legal products derived from hemp, to serve in the Kansas Senate. Mary Ware will replace Lynn Rogers, who was elected lieutenant governor last month.

Ware will serve the final two years of Rogers' four-year term. She operates a pair of stores selling oils from cannabis.

What are the odds?

The Sports Biz website says Kansas “could become part of the initial group of states that provide sports wagering.”

It reports that state Sen. Bud Estes wants lawmakers to hold a special interim committee session on the topic. The site says Kelly is open to sports betting. It also suggests the key will be getting the tax level just right — high enough to generate real revenue, but not so steep as to tempt bettors to offshore sportsbooks or off-the-books bookies.

Among the other issues to be sorted out, assuming the state does allow sports gambling, is whether Kansans could wager online or only at casinos and other land-based operations.

Cupcakes to celebrate retirement?

The Kansas State University football team ended this season with five wins and seven losses.

And so ended the Bill Snyder era.

But the coach took a team that was a perennial doormat into one that was among the toughest in its league, won a couple conference championships and threatened, at times, to contend on the national level.

He was in charge for 27 years.

Scott Canon is digital editor of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @ScottCanon.

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the editor of a statewide news outlet, I aspire to work with our reporters to give Kansans a clear-eyed view of the place they call home. That means delivering hard-hitting stories that expose those things that keep Kansas from being the most vibrant, healthy place it can be. You can reach me at scott@kcur.org or 816-235-8023.
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