At a Dec. 13 public forum, individuals addressing south central members of the Kansas Legislature presented their priorities as life-and-death issues.
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Content warning: This story contains references to and descriptions of suicide.
What makes an ordinary person give up a Tuesday evening to wait in a barren meeting room for an hour or more – to speak to their Kansas Legislature senators and representatives for no more than two allotted minutes?
Grief over dead children. Grief over friends. Grief over people who they believe would not be dead if only the state had better laws.
“You have the power to save lives this upcoming session,” said Lisa Veyda, one of two dozen people who signed up to speak Dec. 13 at a public forum hosted by the Regional Economic Area Partnership of South Central Kansas (REAP). (A video of the forum may be viewed online.)
REAP hosts the listening session each year to allow Kansas Legislature representatives and senators from south central Kansas to hear directly from the public about their top concerns, going into the new legislative session. The Kansas Legislature reconvenes in Topeka on Jan. 9, 2023.
Allowing constituents to talk to legislators is important, given that a large host of paid lobbyists talk to legislators a lot more than constituents do.
Constituents have say before lobbyists
In anticipation of the new session, 350 registered lobbyists and their more than 450 clients – which include Kansas businesses, local governments and special interests – are preparing lists of legislative priorities for the new term.
REAP’s legislative agenda focuses on issues of common interest to city and county governments in 10 counties in south central Kansas, including Wichita and Sedgwick County. Key priorities are economic and workforce development, but also quality of life issues affecting the region.
Individuals speaking at the forum presented their priorities as life-and-death issues:
Michael Poage of Wichita told lawmakers how his nephew killed himself using a gun taken from the glove box of his father’s pickup truck. He and others in attendance – wearing the red Moms Demand Action T-shirts – asked lawmakers to reduce gun violence with laws that restrict access to guns through background checks on all sales, and requirements that guns be secured from children and mentally unstable people. Poage said in his years as a pastor, he has buried too many young people who died from gun violence. “Have you ever had to close the eyes of a 14-year-old girl dying in her own blood on the sidewalk?”
Lisa Vayda of Wichita asked lawmakers to pass “harm reduction measures” meant to reduce the risk of drug addicts dying while waiting for addiction treatment. Such measures would include legalizing fentanyl test strips – now classified as drug paraphernalia – and making Narcan widely available. “We can’t get people into treatment if they are dead.”
Speakers share grief over losses
Rebekah Rickstrew of Caldwell called on lawmakers to make the penalty for killing someone while driving under the influence second-degree murder rather than manslaughter so that sentences can be tougher. The man who killed her son, Rickstrew said, was sentenced to five years. “There is nothing involuntary about someone getting into a vehicle under the influence.”
Tracey Mason, a Wichitan and member of the task force appointed by Sedgwick County to investigate the causes of the death of 17-year-old Cedric Lofton, chastised lawmakers for talking since 2017 about a desire to amend the state’s Stand Your Ground law so that it could not be used as a defense by law enforcement. He noted that the Sedgwick County coroner ruled Lofton’s death in custody a homicide, while the district attorney declined to press charges, citing the law. “From 2017 to 2022 … the legislators got paid their $88 a day to not do anything about it. Stop working on it and get it done.”
An hour into the forum, Jessica Blackburn of Valley Center came to the microphone, her voice choked with emotion, asking lawmakers to stop overdose deaths. One of her friends died a week after being released from prison because he didn’t get the help he needed in prison, she said. “I don’t know anything about legislation, I am from the streets. … Please, I am begging you… I have lost so many friends… please.”
Not every speaker shared a story of loss. A few people addressed other topics, urging Kansas Legislature lawmakers to protect abortion rights, increase special education funding, reform juvenile justice laws that make children responsible for fines and prevent predatory payday loans.
Because it was a listening session, the lawmakers seated at the front of the room said little during the hour and a half.
10 of 49 lawmakers show up to listen
The south central Kansas legislative delegation includes 49 members. The 10 in attendance included: Republican Reps. Avery Anderson, Susan Estes, Cyndi Howerton, Sandy Pickert and Patrick Penn; Democratic Reps. Ford Carr and John Carmichael; Republican Sen. Michael Fagg; and Democratic Sens. Mary Ware and Oletha Faust-Goudeau.
One outgoing lawmaker and a former lawmaker spoke.
Rep. Chuck Schmidt, a former school superintendent, was appointed to fill a vacancy in District 88 when Rep. Elizabeth Bishop resigned in 2021. Both are Democrats. Schmidt was defeated in November after less than one term. Both he and Bishop signed up to speak in support of Medicaid expansion. They waited their turn for two minutes like the other speakers.
Schmidt also urged lawmakers to repeal sales tax on food immediately and provide property tax relief. His final admonition was for the legislature to focus on issues of urgent concern to people’s lives.
“I hope that those are the things we can spend our time on,” Schmidt said, “rather than the hot-button social issues that get people fired up but don’t generally provide help for the average Kansan.”