Five issues to watch in Kansas’ 2023 legislative session

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly will begin her second term next week as lawmakers return to Topeka for the 2023 legislative session under the Capitol dome in Topeka.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly will begin her second term next week as lawmakers return to Topeka for the 2023 legislative session under the Capitol dome in Topeka.

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On the heels of a contentious election cycle, Kansas lawmakers will return to Topeka next week with dynamics largely unchanged from the past two years.

The GOP retained its supermajority in both legislative chambers despite losing one seat in the Kansas House, but the party will continue to clash with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, fresh off a tight but successful reelection bid.

As Kelly seeks to push her agenda – increased funding for special education, a food sales tax cut and medicaid expansion – Republican lawmakers will pursue their own goals including school choice expansions and steeper long term tax cuts.

Though both sides have indicated some appetite for compromise, Kelly has made it clear she plans to use her veto pen if necessary and legislative leaders have said her victory in November is not a sign Kansans support Democratic policies.

Here’s a preview of the issues to watch:


Special education is all but guaranteed to dominate conversations about education in 2023.

A major point of Kelly’s reelection campaign was a promise to “fully fund” special education. State statute requires Kansas to fund 92{515baef3fee8ea94d67a98a2b336e0215adf67d225b0e21a4f5c9b13e8fbd502} of the excess costs of special education not covered by the federal government. However, the state has never fulfilled that obligation.

Public school advocates say the underfunding has stretched school budgets in an unsustainable manner, forcing districts to reallocate funds intended for the general student population to cover the needs of special education students.

While Kelly and Democrats have sought to steer surplus funds in other parts of the state budget to the issue, Republicans in the Legislature are resistant to sending more money to K-12 education, which already takes up around $6.4 billion in the state’s roughly $22 billion budget.

State Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who chairs the K-12 Budget Committee, advocated for taking a second look at the state statute surrounding special education and reallocating other funds going to schools for the purpose.

“I think the adjustment to the statute would solve a large percentage of the issue. I also think we can move money around in education,” Williams said. “If the districts feel like they want more money in special education then we can do some shifting.”

Williams and Kelly have said they plan to pressure the federal government to allocate more funds.

Republican lawmakers are also likely to, once again, pursue legislation that would allow parents to use public dollars to provide voucher-like-programs for private education. Williams said she hoped to pass legislation establishing educational savings accounts parents could use on private education, tutoring or homeschooling.

A “parents’ bill of rights,” which would grant more parental control over classroom curriculum, is also a priority for Republicans.

“I’m still hearing from parents throughout the state, I’m hearing from school board members who are concerned about how things are being controlled in the school board,” state Sen. Molly Baumgardner said. “I’ve already heard from Senate leadership that that’s something that they want to see addressed again so we’ll take a look at that.”

Kelly has been adamantly opposed to both, referring to the parents bill of rights as the “teacher demoralization act.”


Though voters opted in August to preserve abortion as a protected right in Kansas, lawmakers are likely to pursue new legislation on the issue when they return to Topeka in January.

Lawmakers will seek policies that deal with the issue without dragging the state back into court including a constitutional amendment changing the way supreme court justices are appointed and funding of pregnancy centers.

In its December newsletter Kansans for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion organization, outlined steps forward in the wake of their defeat.

The group’s primary legislative goal will be funding of crisis pregnancy centers, generally religiously affiliated centers focused on providing assistance to pregnant women and discouraging abortions. Crisis pregnancy centers are frequently criticized for deceiving women into thinking they provide abortions.

In the newsletter Jeanne Gawdun, the lobbyist for KFL, advocated for sending more money into the Stan Clark Pregnancy Maintenance Initiative, a small state grant program that provides funds to organizations providing services to pregnant women including crisis pregnancy centers.

“With ever-increasing numbers of abortion-seeking women coming to Kansas from out of state, it is more important than ever that PRCs have the financial support they need to reach out to these women,” Gawdun wrote.

Hawkins, the House speaker-elect, has indicated support for these policies. He also told reporters last month he anticipated pursuing legislation aimed at helping fetuses that survive an abortion.

The Wichita Republican said the Legislature would have to be mindful to pass bills that would not bring them into court.

“In all of my 10 years there’s always been an abortion ban bill every year, does it get heard, no. But there’s always a bill that’s introduced,” he said.

“You have to do something that you think has a chance of passing muster. There are some things out there that could be done that may have nothing to do with abortion bans.”

Medical marijuana

Kansas is one of 13 states that has not legalized marijuana for medicinal use. It is one of just three that does not have a program for CBD with low THC levels, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Kansas is surrounded on three sides by states that permit either medicinal or recreational marijuana use but the issue has been stalled in the state Legislature. Missouri voters opted in November to legalize recreational marijuana statewide, which will likely put more pressure on Kansas to reconsider its strict prohibition.

In 2021 the Kansas House of Representatives approved a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana in a limited manner. When the bill moved to the Senate for the 2022 Legislative session, however, it stalled.

An interim committee spent the fall studying the issue but it is unclear whether it stands a reasonable chance at passing in 2023.

Masterson, the Senate president, has not ruled out acting on the issue but even has consistently said it is not a priority for him or the members of his caucus even as outside pressures increase.

Meanwhile, Hawkins told reporters earlier this year he did not plan to push the issue unless the Senate moved first.

“There’s no reason for the House to do it again and then have it go over to the Senate and sit there for two more years and nothing happens,” he said.

If a version of medical marijuana passes in Kansas it would be an extremely limited bill. Lawmakers are highly cautious of legislation that would open the door to recreational use and view the wide availability of medical marijuana in states like Oklahoma as a cautionary tale.


Kansas is projected to end the current fiscal year in June with $2.3 billion on hand. Like other states nationwide Kansas is benefiting from higher than expected revenues and windfalls from federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

Kelly and legislative leaders have advocated for a cautious approach to the surplus funds – funneling the money towards paying down debt in the state’s pension fund, funding one-time expenses and growing the state’s rainy day fund.

The Democratic governor will release her budget priorities at the start of session.

Her budget is expected to include funding for Medicaid expansion, Kelly’s biggest policy priority that went unfulfilled during her first term. Kansas is among the last 11 holdout states to expand coverage.

Kelly has long advocated for expansion, submitting various proposals to the Legislature. But the policy is considered dead on arrival in the conservative supermajority led in the Kansas House by Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican adamantly opposed to expansion.

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, told reporters last week he didn’t expect a compromise to be on the table this year even if the proposal included strict work requirements.

“I never say never,” Masterson said. “What the Legislature would accept as the best expansion would probably not be enough for the governor or vice versa.”


Kelly’s budget is also certain to include funding allocations for tax cuts. Earlier this month, Kelly rolled out a tax cut package that included an immediate sales tax elimination for food, diapers and feminine hygiene products, reduced taxes on Social Security income and a sales tax holiday on school supplies in August.

Kelly advocated for an immediate cut to food sales tax in the 2022 session but lawmakers instead passed a gradual elimination that would begin to take effect in January.

Kelly characterized these cuts as strategic to provide the most relief to Kansans without harming the budget.

Masterson said he was pleasantly surprised by Kelly’s proposal but that the proposal to immediately eliminate the food sales tax was part of what would need to be discussed.

“She’s not too far off from what we have been talking about for a long time,” Masterson said about Kelly’s proposal to reduce income taxes on social security. “Looking at the nuts and bolts of what she’s proposed, there’s probably a solution.”

But Republicans may want to go further.

Republican lawmakers on the state’s interim tax committee recommended action earlier in December to eliminate the $75,000 cliff on Social Security taxes. Their full recommendation advocated for the eventual elimination of all taxes on Social Security and reduced — or eliminated — taxes on other retirement benefits.

State Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican who chairs the Senate Taxation Committee, said she and Senate leadership plan to study and propose a bill changing Kansas’ income tax to a single tax bracket system.

“It does help move our tax formula into a simpler program,” she said. “You make $10,000, you make $100,000, you all pay the same percentage of that income.”

This story was originally published January 2, 2023 5:30 AM.

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Katie Bernard covers the Kansas Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star as a breaking news reporter in May of 2019 before moving to the politics team in December 2020. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.

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