Stephen Koranda | KCUR

Stephen Koranda

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Kansas Public Radio.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas may not have any limits on the number of people who can safely gather — at all. 

In a dramatic rebuke, Republican leaders on the Legislative Coordinating Council voted Wednesday to overturn the Democratic governor’s executive order banning churches and funerals from having more than 10 people at services, which followed a wider directive from March 24. 

Kelly did not immediately reinstate a ban on large gatherings, saying her administration was exploring its legal options. But Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a news release Wednesday evening that his office believes the March 24 order to be in effect.

Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service

Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts says he will not run for re-election in 2020, opening the door to a parade of candidates announcing a run or considering jumping into the race to replace him. Multiple Republicans are eyeing the seat, and it could be the first time Democrats have a competitive U.S. Senate primary since the 1990s.

Here’s the rundown of who’s seeking the seat in Washington: 

Daniel Caudill / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — The week started with a Kansas House Democrat making an unusual request to not just his fellow lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but to the Lord: “Please nudge our counterparts in the Senate. Please help them to work with a little more urgency.”

With the threat of the new coronavirus growing by the day — businesses were shutting down, universities moving fully online — legislators knew time was running out to pass the state’s budget for the next fiscal year. The action was pretty much restricted to the Statehouse’s document room and the chambers. No visitors or school groups in the halls of the Capitol, the hearing rooms empty, the whole place a reminder of how quickly things changed.

Erica Hunzinger / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — If Kansas lawmakers pass a bill allowing student-athletes to make money off endorsements, you might see the next five-star KU or K-State basketball recruits selling cars, shoes or soda.

Dozens of states, including Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, are thinking about changing the rules since the NCAA said in October that it will eventually allow student-athletes to be paid for their name, image and likeness. These bills are stopgaps, aimed at putting rules in place should there be a period of time before national rules are approved by the NCAA or Congress.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas lawmakers passed an important milestone this week: the midpoint deadline called “turnaround.”

In simple terms, it means most bills must have passed one chamber or they’re pretty much dead for the year — though are there are ways around the rules for things legislators really want to pursue (and bills from some committees are exempt).

Here are a few of the dozens of bills that are moving on to the House or the Senate, and a few that reached the end of the line, at least for now.

Screenshot from the Kansas Bureau of Investigations' website

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas is unmatched in its tracking of ex-convicts, resulting in more than 21,000 people convicted of sex, drug or violent crimes being registered on a public database.

One of them is Marc Schultz, who was convicted of manslaughter for hitting and killing a cyclist while driving drunk in 2010.

“I will forever live with the burden of taking a man’s life for a decision that I made,” Schultz said Monday. “But I didn’t intend for this to happen.”

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas legislative session began with what seemed like a done deal for expanding Medicaid. Gov. Laura Kelly and a top Republican senator had forged a compromise to offer health coverage for up to 130,000 low-income Kansans.

About a month later, the deal has ground to a halt — and even the state budget could be held up — because of abortion politics. 

Daniel Caudill / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas House narrowly rejected a constitutional amendment Friday that would have said there’s no right to abortion in the state constitution.

After the defeat, Republican leaders promised this “was just the beginning.”

“Don’t be surprised when it comes up again because it will come up again this session,” House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins said after the vote.

The final count was 80-43, just short of the 84 votes needed to put the issue on a statewide ballot vote where Kansans could reject it or add it to the state constitution.

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansans thinking about wagering a few bucks on the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl appearance this weekend would have to go to one of 14 states to do it legally.

But by later this year, sports betting could be legal in Kansas. This year’s bill is a compromise — allowing people over 21 to gamble on sports through the companies that run the state-owned casinos and via online apps. And it has some critical support.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas —Vegetarian meat alternatives are growing in popularity, with “Chick’n Strips” and “Porkless Bites” filling freezer cases in some Kansas grocery stores.

But following a handful of states, a bill in the Kansas Statehouse would clamp down on how meatless-meat products are labeled. Backed by the Kansas Livestock Association, the bill would require more specific labeling for meat substitutes, with words such as “imitation” included in front of phrases like “meatballs.”

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s budget wish list is long: boosting spending on higher education, public safety and human services. She'd aim to cut some taxes, but look to add new ones for streaming video and music services.

Not surprisingly, the $7.8 billion plan is getting a mixed response from the Republicans who control the Legislature.

Daniel Caudill / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — The 2020 Kansas Legislature is underway. And while Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly laid out some of her top priorities during the State of the State address on Wednesday, Republican leaders of the House and Senate (and Kelly's fellow Democrats) have some different goals. 

Here are five issues that will be top of mind for the governor and lawmakers as the session heats up.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas and federal election officials say they know the 2020 election could come under attack from foreign governments or rogue hackers. They also insist they’re braced to guard against efforts to tamper with voting.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen / The Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Personal income growth in Kansas is below the national average, due in large part to troubles in the agriculture industry, which makes up about 40% percent of the state’s economy.

Kansas farmers face an expanding drought and low commodity prices, though a break in the ongoing tariff dispute may bring those up.

“Farmers have bills to pay,” Kansas Wheat Commission CEO Justin Gilpin said. “Ultimately, what we need to do is hopefully see commodity prices somewhat bottom out here and get trade going.”

The blow also has been softened by a total of $732 million in federal trade-bailout money in 2019 alone, which Gilpin calls a “lifeline” for some Kansas farmers.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — A Shawnee County district judge was named Monday to one of the vacancies on the Kansas Supreme Court.

Though the state’s most prominent anti-abortion group opposed Shawnee County District Court Judge Evelyn Wilson, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly Chose Wilson from among the three candidates recommended by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission. It’s a choice that could fuel efforts to change how Kansas’ Supreme Court justices get their seats.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

Though its Medicaid contract is still at stake, Aetna Better Health is making progress, Kansas lawmakers and state regulators said this week. 

“There has been a good response from them,” Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment Lee Norman told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas will now have a streamlined census that counts people only where they’re living after voters decided Tuesday to end the practice of adjusting the numbers before state legislative districts are drawn up.

Chris Neal / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — Abortion opponents appear divided on the best strategy to overcome the Kansas Supreme Court's ruling that the state constitution guarantees a right to the procedure.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — A top Republican in the Kansas Senate said he’s designed a Medicaid expansion plan that aims to walk a fine line — one that can win over conservatives without losing support from moderate Republicans and Democrats.

But the proposal also risks satisfying neither faction.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning outlined a proposal this week that would grow the Medicaid health care plan to cover an added 150,000 or so low-income Kansans.

Chris Neal / For the Kansas News Service

Kansas lawmakers spent years imposing ever tougher restrictions on abortion and then saw the state Supreme Court declare that women hold a right to the procedure.

Now Republicans and abortion opponents appear determined to amend the Kansas Constitution to reverse that ruling.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA, Kansas — When Gov. Laura Kelly signed a proclamation recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month in Kansas this week, she hailed the culture and diversity that Latinos bring to the state. She also gave a serious warning. 

If the state’s 350,000 Latinos don’t take part in the 2020 census, she said, Kansas could lose federal money and, potentially, representation in Congress.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

Over the last five years, almost 15,000 workers disappeared from the Kansas workforce.

During the same timeframe, the state is growing economically, with a recent monthly report showing 14,000 jobs created in the last year and unemployment at 3.3%. That’s below the national rate. 

Despite the good news, Kansas officials see a long-term challenge: having enough employees to fill the state’s jobs, especially in high-demand careers like nursing and accounting.

Jim McLean / Kansas News Service

Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner is ending his campaign for the U.S. Senate and will instead launch a primary challenge against Republican Congressman Steve Watkins.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

Aetna Better Health is struggling to keep its Medicaid contract with KanCare, to the point that state officials found fault with Aetna’s recent plan to improve services.

But Kansas lawmakers had two words this week for the company: Keep trying.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

VALLEY FALLS, Kansas — Dennis Ritchey stands in the kitchen of his modest apartment. He calls it efficient, but likes that it has plenty of cabinets.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

The state of Kansas is canceling a contract that administered an elementary-school reading program because of what state officials call inappropriate spending on travel and salaries. 

The contractor disputes any mishandling of the money, which in recent years amounted to nearly $10 million routed from a program meant to serve needy families. 

Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — A new Kansas law provides some protection for people possessing CBD oil containing limited amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

But it’s not full-on legalization, meaning the oil could still result in legal trouble even for people with documents confirming it’s for medical purposes. 

CBD oil without THC is already legal in Kansas. CBD is made from the same plant that marijuana comes from, but the plants are bred with relatively small amounts of the psychoactive compounds.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

(This story was updated at 2:15 p.m.)

LEAVENWORTH, Kansas — Republican former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced Monday that he’s running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Pat Roberts.

Kobach beat then-Gov. Jeff Colyer in the primary election last year — helped partly by a last-minute endorsement from President Donald Trump — but ultimately lost the governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly.

Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service

Build higher, build stronger — it pays off big in Kansas.

Disaster mitigation investments in Kansas yielded more savings than efforts in any other state, a new study found. The Pew Charitable Trusts listed Missouri as a close second.

Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

The Kansas Board of Regents pressured state university officials to rethink hiking tuition, and the schools did just that.

In-state tuition for undergraduates at all state campuses will be flat or reduced after the regents approved revised rates Wednesday. Though some graduate and out-of-state students will see modest tuition increases.

Regents Chair Dennis Mullin thanked university officials for scaling back their tuition proposals, which he said comes with “punishment and pain.”

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