SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months

Everything you need to know about the 2021 Kansas legislative session

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
The Kansas Statehouse is lit as legislature continues to work into the night on May 21, 2020.

Lawmakers return to Topeka for the first time in six months Monday to begin their annual legislative session.

The process will look different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but some things will remain the same as lawmakers endeavor to do the people's business.

We give you a crash course in the basics of what you need to know.

When is the 2021 legislative session?

The session begins at 2 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11, and generally lasts for 90 days. The exact timetable, however, may be fluid due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, lawmakers halted their work in March and only returned for a brief period in May and June. 

How do I figure out who my legislator is?

The Kansas Senate has 40 members, while the Kansas House has 125. You can look up who represents you in both chambers at http://www.kslegislature.org

How does a bill become law?

Buckle up folks, it's Schoolhouse Rock time.

Legislators will introduce bills, which are referred to the relevant committee. The committee chair has wide latitude in determining which legislation moves forward and oftentimes bills are altered or just abandoned in this stage.

Once legislation is moved out of committee, it is moved to the floor, where lawmakers can deliberate and further amend the bill if they so choose. A final vote is held and, assuming a majority of members vote in support, it moves to the other chamber.

The process is then repeated in the other chamber. If the bill passes in its original form, it heads to the governor for consideration. If it is amended, the original chamber will decide whether to approve, or concur in, the changes. Another option is for legislators to request a conference committee, where members from both chambers come together to hash out a solution.

Once approved by both chambers, the governor can either sign the bill, veto it or allow the legislation to become law without her signature.

If vetoed, the bill is not dead — a two-thirds majority of both chambers can override the governor’s veto, meaning the legislation becomes law.

An important note: Often numerous policy items are consolidated into one bill as session nears its end for the sake of efficiency. For instance, a single tax bill can contain several provisions related to that issue. There is also the controversial practice of "gut and go," where a piece of legislation is replaced in its entirety with unrelated bill text and moved on.

Who will be running the show?

There will be faces both old and new in charge of the Kansas House and Kansas Senate next session.

The Senate is where things will look quite different, with two key leaders, Sens. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, electing not to seek re-election.

Wagle will be replaced as Senate president by Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, while Denning’s successor as majority leader will be Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita.

Masterson is expected to bring a firebrand approach similar to that of Wagle, setting the stage for potential conflict with Gov. Laura Kelly.

“I think fundamentally that is the purpose of this body, to be a check on the executive branch and the governor,” Masterson said in December.

Suellentrop, who has been in the Kansas Senate for four years, will lead a Senate Republican caucus that is more conservative than in years past, giving more juice to policy items such as a proposed constitutional amendment to limit the right to an abortion.

On the House side, things are more stable. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, will serve an unprecedented third term in the position and both House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, also retained their posts.

What about the Democrats?

Democrats will have diminished power in Topeka after efforts to expand their numbers in both chambers to nix Republicans’ veto-proof majorities fell short in the November elections. The defeat of many moderate Republican allies will make their work even trickier in the session ahead.

Senate Democrat leadership will look quite different, after longtime Minority Leader Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, was defeated in November. Sen. Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, will take the reins as her party’s floor leader and has said her caucus will aim to promote their legislative agenda undaunted by their numerical disadvantage.

“We are ending a historic year with COVID and there is a lot of opportunity,” Sykes said after the leadership elections in December. “I look forward to working with the caucus and building on the foundation that Anthony started.”

On the House side, House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, will retain his position.

What does the new makeup of the Legislature mean for me?

The Legislature will undoubtedly be more conservative, with Republicans expanding their supermajorities in both the Kansas House and Senate. 

That means less incentive for both parties to work together, as Republicans can push essentially whatever legislation they want.

Fewer moderate members in their caucuses also make it more likely they can sustain a veto from Kelly.

"There already hasn't been a lot of dialogue, at least not visible to the public," said Patrick Miller, professor of political science at the University of Kansas. "I don't think there is reason to expect more of that."

That means more aggressive stances on issues ranging from tax policy to abortion to the state's COVID-19 pandemic response.

Can I attend session?

No — at least not in person.

Statehouse access is expected to be limited to lawmakers and those with business before the Legislature, including lobbyists and news media. Access to the chambers themselves will be even more limited. In either event, the general public won't be able to have a physical presence in the building.

Lawmakers are instead hoping that expanded investment in audio-visual technology will allow residents the ability to keep tabs on committee hearings and floor session from the comfort of their own home. While tech issues have plagued some of the interim committees meeting over the summer, legislators are hoping that millions of dollars worth of upgrades will make for smoother sailing.

What if I want to learn more?

The Topeka Capital-Journal has you covered. Our two statehouse reporters, Andrew Bahl and Titus Wu, will be in the halls of the capitol day in and day out, reporting on what you need to know. You can follow them on Twitter @AndrewBahl and @tituswu100 and find their work every day at cjonline.com and in Gannett papers throughout Kansas.

This is one of a package of stories previewing the 2021 Kansas Legislative Session. Follow Andrew Bahl, @andrewbahl, and Titus Wu, @tituswu100, on Twitter for coverage of the session.