Kansas Republicans target ‘imminently exploitable’ community

TOPEKA — Shouting into a bullhorn from the south steps of the Capitol, Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen told a throng of transgender kids: “You belong here.”

The Topeka pastor assured them they have allies in the Statehouse who were working to change the minds of transphobic politicians.

“But you gotta help us out,” Schlingensiepen said. “Wherever you’re from, you need to get politically engaged. You have to find ways to vote people out who don’t care about you, and who keep bringing these hateful bills to the floor in the House, and who are using you to divide and conquer voters.”

It was a rare moment in Kansas politics: A lawmaker whose faith inspired him to speak passionately in support of the LGBTQ community. Two hundred kids and their allies had gathered to protest an assortment of legislation inspired by a different brand of Christianity — one that is more judgmental than compassionate.

Kansas Reflector is examining the influence of religious beliefs on state government through a series of stories.

The role of religion in attacks on the LGBTQ community is evident in the hate group that writes legislation, debate among lawmakers, and a secret audio recording from a March 2 meeting of Republicans in Hutchinson.

Adam Peters, Ellis County GOP chairman, told Republicans at the meeting that gender dysphoria is a psychological problem comparable to anorexia.

As Christians, he said, “we need to go very hard against the people that are preying on children.”

“I honestly believe that if many of these transgendered people had parents in their lives, had friends in their lives, good Christian people who could treat them the way that Christ calls us to treat one another, you know, to say to the girl who doesn’t fit in, ‘It’s OK that you don’t like Barbies,’ then we wouldn’t have as much of the problems that we do,” Peters said.

The GOP-dominated Legislature this year reversed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes to ban transgender athletes from school sports and establish a “women’s bill of rights” that blocks transgender women and girls from public restrooms and domestic violence shelters. Lawmakers also passed a ban on gender-affirming care but failed to override Kelly’s veto of that bill.

This was the third straight year in which GOP lawmakers tried to pass legislation banning transgender girls from playing with cisgender girls on public school sports teams, starting in kindergarten. Under a policy adopted by the Kansas State High School Activities Association, disputes will be settled by a birth certificate or, if one isn’t available, a licensed physician will verify a child’s sex by “using current standard assessment protocols.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which promotes “religious liberty” laws and is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, crafted the model legislation.

When Kansas lawmakers first debated the transgender athlete ban in 2021, Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, quoted from the Book of Genesis.

“ ‘Male and female He created them,’ ” she said. “May not agree with it — those are God’s words.”

This year, Rep. Barb Wasinger, a Hays Republican, joyfully told the House Republican caucus they would be voting on the bill on Ash Wednesday. She said the idea that legislation was unnecessary is a “fairytale.” Her colleagues laughed at the slur.

On the other side of the political aisle, Schlingensiepen thought about the transgender members of First Congregational Church, where he has served as senior minister since 2005.

“They’re people I went to school with,” he said in an interview for this series. “They’re people I know. They’re friends that I have. I don’t see really any difference in the way they live their lives compared to anybody else. And so I really don’t understand what the obsession is with them — on a rational level.”

Schlingensiepen’s views are shaped by faith and ancestry.

He grew up in Topeka but spent summers with his grandparents in Germany, where he heard stories about what happened during the years of Nazi rule. Both of his defiant grandfathers were incarcerated or sent to the front lines to face almost certain annihilation. Miraculously, both survived. But they felt guilty, Schlingensiepen said, about not speaking up sooner.

“There’s a certain kind of experience that comes from understanding what it means when you put a target on people’s backs that gets politically exploited and where that can lead under the right conditions,” Schlingensiepen said. “We don’t live in 1933 Germany here in the United States, but nonetheless, human behavior is what it is. And that means when people feel like they’re suffering, and savior types come along and suggest that they have the answers to all the questions, it’s not as difficult as people would think to get people to follow them, and to engage in devaluing others in the process.”

Schlingensiepen attended seminary in Germany, where he was admitted at the University of Bonn. He was an assistant professor of systematic theology and ethics, and ran an institute for social ethics, before returning in 1999 to the church he grew up in.

First Congregational Church was founded in 1855 as part of a movement to fight slavery in the Kansas territory. The congregation founded Washburn University, which was open to women and Black students from the beginning. The denomination, the United Church of Christ, was one of the first to fight for gender inclusivity, back in the 1970s.

Schlingensiepen said “you don’t have to go very far” to realize the ways religion has been used to create hate.

“We see it right now,” he said. “Let’s blame everything on LGBTQ folks. It’s imminently exploitable to do that. And there’s something in the way our brains are wired that is easily led to be suspicious of any group of people that somehow exonerates us from any kind of culpability. So I don’t have to change if I can point to so-and-so being evil.”

Peters, the Ellis County GOP chairman, emphasized what it means to be a Christian as he addressed a crowd of Republicans in March at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson. An unauthorized audio recording of the meeting was shared with Kansas Reflector.

Christians, according to Peters, understand that God created men and women for distinct and important roles.

“The gospel of Jesus Christ is going to get to the heart of this thing,” Peters said. “And that’s actually why we need to guard our churches. There have been a growing number of churches that have been promoting drag shows. You just look at this and you think, ‘This is satanic.’ You know, we were seeing about a contract with the devil before, and I have to seriously question what documents some of these pastors are signing.”

An unidentified man in the crowd of 50-75 Republicans asked if Peters knew where to find the highest concentration of toxic masculinity in the world. The answer, according to the man: Arlington National Cemetery.

The conversation devolved into serious consideration of whether “furries” were demanding litter boxes in schools. The urban legend has gained traction with Republicans nationwide who equate transgender people with someone pretending to be a cat.

“At the high school, they’re allowing kids to identify as cats and provided them litter boxes,” said a woman who identified herself as a nurse at Wiley Elementary School.

Tess Anderson, state GOP secretary, asked if she had seen the litter boxes. The nurse had not.

“The reason why I asked is because there are people who say it’s not happening, and there are people who are needing actual proof of that,” Anderson said.

Cheryl Thompson, a member of the Hutchinson Public Schools board, said she went to every bathroom in the seventh and eighth grade and couldn’t find evidence of litter boxes.

Back in Topeka, at the March 31 rally where Schlingensiepen spoke, a 13-year-old transgender boy from Lawrence grabbed the bullhorn.

Ian Benalcázar, dressed in a Pinkie Pie cardigan, told the crowd: “I am what they are scared of.”

“I can’t believe that I, a child, has to explain why I deserve to live, to breathe and to be happy,” Benalcázar said. “I should be worrying about my grades, not whether or not I’ll be a victim of a hate crime on my way to the bus stop.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Revealed: Republicans' divine plan to turn Kansas into 'conservative sanctuary'

TOPEKA — Adam Peters laced his sermon for Reno County Republicans with conspiracy theories about a liberal plot to turn their children against them, LGBTQ-friendly church pastors who signed a contract with Satan, the ubiquitous travesty of critical race theory, and make-believe enemies working to “foment violent conflict.”

Peters, the GOP chairman in Ellis County and an author for far-right publications, talked for two hours at the March 2 meeting at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson, where he was joined by two state legislators and local GOP officials. He outlined his plans — tinted by hints of violence and the assurance that God is on their side — to turn Kansas into a conservative sanctuary.

The conversation, secretly recorded and shared with Kansas Reflector, celebrated religious beliefs that correspond directly with policies embraced by the Legislature during this year’s session. From the meeting’s opening prayer to the ending prayer, a divine calling was made clear: Republicans must purge the state of anyone who disagrees with their extremist positions on the LGBTQ community, reproductive health care, education and race.

“If you can make it hostile to that group of people, that small sliver of society, and have them move elsewhere, that does a huge amount to shut this down,” Peters said. “It’s both sides of it: You need to attract the good people here, and you also need to make it clear to the bad people, this isn’t gonna go well for you.”

With supermajority control of both the Senate and House, Republican lawmakers routinely entertain policy ideas shaped by fringe religious views — restrictions placed on transgender residents, anti-abortion propaganda, tax dollars for private schools, a refusal to acknowledge systemic racism.

A religious pulse shakes every pillar of the Statehouse, from invocations that begin daily sessions to competing morning prayer groups to a spiritual adviser who roams the halls to the Bible clutched in John Brown’s hand in the famous mural on the second floor.

The application of religion takes various shapes in legislative debate — as justification for attacks on marginalized people, or a rebuke to the prevailing vote.

For Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Democrat who serves as senior minister at First Congregational Church in Topeka, there is a right way and wrong way to combine religion and politics. He said a Christian politician should be looking out for people who don’t have a voice and criticizing those who have all the money and power.

In an interview for this series, Schlingensiepen responded to Peters’ comments from the meeting in Hutchinson. Schlingensiepen condemned those who “misunderstand themselves as the moral gatekeepers of society,” the ones who want to decide “who’s good with God and who isn’t.”

“We’re not talking about religion as people’s personal way of navigating life and dealing with life’s difficulties,” Schlingensiepen said. “We’re talking its exploitation, where it’s being used in order to suggest to someone that something’s being taken away from you, or that somehow you’re being harmed.”

Peters, who founded Right Edge Magazine and writes for Conservative Institute, depicted political conservatives as victims as he addressed the gathering of Reno County Republicans. They were being threatened, he said, by people who wield critical race theory, as well as critical gender theory and queer theory, with the goal of deconstructing societal norms.

“We need to use the tools that are at our disposal,” Peters said. “You know, if we look in scripture, there was a time when the nation of Israel had to take up arms in defense of themselves.”

Peters did not respond to an email seeking comment for this series.

His five-point plan to turn Kansas into a conservative sanctuary starts with “some ideas in it to make things less than ideal for the folks involved,” Peters said.

“So for example,” he said, “I believe we need to absolve drivers from both civil and criminal liability if they strike rioters who are blocking a public right of way.”

Peters falsely claimed “many people were dragged to other vehicles and savagely beaten” during riots in 2020, which were inspired by the police murder of George Floyd. Those tactics, Peters warned, “could easily come back.” In fact, he said, “things are probably gonna get worse before they get better.”

Amber Dickinson, an associate professor of political science at Washburn University, said Peters’ “troubling” comments about taking up arms and legalizing vehicular manslaughter could be considered hate speech.

“They’re asking people to martyr up … and that is really scary to me,” Dickinson said.

She said the religious views expressed by Peters go “way beyond” beliefs held by most Kansans who identify as Christian and are “just trying to live their life in a way that they think is good and right.”

“It is normal to have a belief in a higher power, if you choose to have that belief,” Dickinson said. “It is not normal to create an army for this higher power and then do vigilante justice, in your opinion, on Earth. That is well beyond the tenants of what most people believe. I mean, goodness. That’s really scary.”

Other points in Peters’ plan include making it a felony for a mob to invade a business, allowing the attorney general to initiate criminal charges when local prosecutors decline, changing the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are appointed because the Kansas Bar Association currently plays an outsized role, and adopting rules that ban critical theory from being used in workplace training.

“It’s hard to argue that critical theory is not a main driver behind much of the degradation that we’re seeing in society today — whether it’s rising crime, whether it’s rising suicide rates, whether it’s racial strife, whether it’s just about anything else,” Peters said.

The problems won’t be fixed overnight, Peters said. It would take work, courage and, most importantly, prayer.

“The only thing that will ever save America or save any nation is our lord and savior,” Peters said.

Peters praised legislation introduced this year by Sen. Mark Steffen, who was in attendance, to ban gender-affirming care.

Steffen campaigned in 2020 on the idea that “following God’s ideals Biblically guarantees a nation’s success.” This year, he offered to convert a Muslim woman who asked him how he planned to represent non-Christian constituents. Steffen denied making the offer, despite audio of the conversation that proved he did. He later said he felt overwhelmed by news coverage of his lie, then realized the experience was “a gift the good Lord gave me.”

Speaking alongside Peters at the March meeting, Steffen said Kansas has an opportunity “to be the bastion of our traditional values.”

Reno County GOP chairman Ryan Patton opened and closed the meeting with a prayer. The county has lost its way, Patton said in his closing prayer, and only God can help.

“We just anxiously await your return so we can just get past all of this in your name,” Patton said.

John Whitesell, a Reno County commissioner, urged the 50-75 Republicans who attended the meeting to help spread the gospel.

“There are a lot of people in this county that are willing to put their life and their honor on the line to fight against some of the stuff,” Whitesell said. “So now what you need to ask yourself is what can I do?”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

After lying about offer to convert Muslim woman, Kansas GOP senator opines on ‘lost souls’

TOPEKA — Sen. Mark Steffen says he never felt so overwhelmed as when he was caught lying about his offer to convert a Muslim woman.

In a secret audio recording obtained by Kansas Reflector from a meeting last week of Republicans at Riverside Baptist Church in Hutchinson, Steffen described a group of young adults who visited his office in March as “horrible” looking and “a mess.”

The first-term senator from Hutchinson also expressed internal anguish over the possibility he had been less than 100% truthful when he claimed he never offered to convert the Muslim woman. His concerns were realized when his comment was verified by an audio recording of the encounter.

“It was the most overwhelming thing I’ve basically ever done in my life, because I was so caught off guard,” Steffen said. “But what a gift the good Lord gave me. It is one thing throwing red meat to hungry carnivores. It’s a whole other thing witnessing to these lost souls. They’re so angry and so broken, and they don’t know why. That’s the highlight of my time in the Legislature.”

Kansas Reflector first reported on Steffen’s offer to convert in an April 27 story about the March 16 meeting with Rija Nazir, who is Muslim, Jenna Dozier, who is Jewish, and others. Nazir asked Steffen how he planned to represent non-Christian constituents.

“I would be happy to try and convert you,” Steffen said.

When a Kansas Reflector reporter asked about the comment, Steffen said it was 100% false. He later offered to convert a Topeka Capital-Journal reporter who also wrote about the exchange.

A Muslim advocacy group released the audio and asked Steffen for equal representation of all constituents.

Steffen told a crowd of about 50 people at the May 4 meeting of Reno County Republicans that his “dear, sweet” office secretary had “let me down” by allowing the group of “kids” to march into his office.

“I’m sorry to say, but these kids looked horrible,” Steffen said. “There was transgenders and, you know, they were proudly telling me they were homosexuals, lesbians. They were a mess. I was doing the best I could. Sometimes I get in over my head, and that was one of them.

“And one of these girls all of a sudden starts asking me pointed questions like, ‘I’m a Muslim, and you have a Bible on your desk, how could you possibly represent me?’ And you know, that’s a kind of question I wish I had thought through beforehand. I truly don’t remember what I said. I truly don’t. This little thing, I was just thinking, ‘They gotta leave. They gotta leave.’ And I really didn’t remember what I said.”

Steffen said he began to question his denial shortly after he talked to the reporter from Kansas Reflector, which he described as “a liberal rag.” Kansas Reflector is a nonpartisan nonprofit news service.

“So now I’m haunted ’cause, you know, I have to be 100% truthful all the time or I’m done the second I’m not,” Steffen said. “I’m done. I’m too abrasive, and I’m too obnoxious. I have to be truthful.”

He wondered: “Did I accidentally lie?”

“Now I’m thinking, ‘How do I handle this? How do I say what’s right to bring glory to God? How do I do right by God?’ ” Steffen said.

Then, he said, he realized God put him in this situation.

Steffen said news reports made his offer to convert Nazir “sound like it was in the wrong.” He consulted with former Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, a Republican from Ness City, to draft a statement for his Facebook page in which he claimed liberals were attacking him for his Christian faith.

The explanation by Steffen came at the end of a 90-minute meeting attending by at least one other legislator, Rep. Michael Murphy, of Sylvia, and local GOP officials. The Reno County GOP chairman, Ryan Patton, opened the meeting by asking that no audio or video recording be made.

In interviews for this story, Nazir and Dozier disputed Steffen’s account of their meeting in March. They said they don’t remember anybody talking about their sexuality or gender identity.

The women said they visited the Statehouse as part of an initiative to understand the legislative process and get to know legislators.

“I only mentioned being Muslim because I noticed all of the Bibles in his office, and that he is very proud of being Christian,” Nazir said. “And I love that he’s Christian. I love that he can express himself. I love that for him. I would never want him to change that about himself. But I want that feeling to be reciprocated, and he did not do that.”

Dozier’s response to Steffen’s account of the meeting: “That’s like crazy. Wow.”

“I think he’s just trying to backtrack after he sees all the negative reactions he’s getting,” Dozier said. “He already has that precursor, calling us horrible people. He knows what he’s doing. He’s an adult man. He knows what he’s saying.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Wichita legal fees exceed $267K in defense of ‘absolutely asinine’ gang list

Tracey C. Mason Sr. says the City of Wichita’s defense of its police department gang list is about leverage.

Authorities don’t want to treat young Black people as human or equals, Mason said.

The city has spent more than $267,000 in legal fees since being sued over the gang list in April 2021 by the American Civil Liberties Union and Kansas Appleseed. The organizations say police use the list to target Black and Latino residents who are identified as gang members with little or no evidence and then subjected to severe consequences.

“It’s racial profiling of our youth,” Mason said. “The gang list is absolutely asinine. I don’t care what they say. Because it targets. It’s a targeting thing, to give permission for me to treat younger human beings as animals. When you label someone as a gang member, you’re literally saying to all law enforcement officers, all other humanity, that these people are dangerous, and treat them as such.

“I believe it comes from systemic racism. Because no longer can you just holler the word ‘n*****’ out and say, ‘Hang the n*****,’ but this is the way they do it.”

The federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the gang list was filed on behalf of Progeny, a youth advocacy group that works to prevent the incarceration of young people and direct state funds into community-based programs that provide alternatives to incarceration.

The City of Wichita, responding to an open records request, provided Kansas Reflector with a month-by-month accounting of legal fees associated with the federal lawsuit. As of March 30, the city had paid $267,382.47 to the Fisher, Patterson, Sayler and Smith law firm, based in Topeka.

Megan Lovely, spokeswoman for the City of Wichita, declined to answer questions for this story.

“Unfortunately we cannot discuss pending litigation at this time,” Lovely said.

Recent court filings show the two sides are in mediation and working to resolve few, but significant, remaining issues.

In a statement, the ACLU of Kansas said, “As the city continues to work to assess and improve its police department’s relationship with the community, we are hopeful we can reach a resolution in this case that adequately remedies the impacts on those affected and prevents further rights violations, without added expense.”

The Wichita police policy allows officers to place residents on the gang list because of the color of clothes they wear, people they know, businesses they visit or neighborhood where they live. The policy doesn’t allow residents to appeal their placement on the list.

About 10.9% of the city’s residents are Black and 17.2% are Latino, but 60% of people placed on the gang list are Black and 25% are Latino.

Those who are placed on the gang list are subjected to constant surveillance, harassment, and housing and employment discrimination. Those who are convicted of a crime face higher bond amounts, more severe probation and parole conditions, and longer sentences.

The total cost of legal fees includes invoices for $31,850.10 on Jan. 23, $14,707.16 on March 2 and $31,077.38 on March 30. Some of the costs can be attributed to depositions where topics include internal criticism or acknowledgement of the racial makeup of the gang list, the policy union’s role in policymaking, duties of gang unit officers, and the identity of individuals who oppose reforming the gang list policy.

Mason, a youth advocate in Wichita, said the city could have used the money spent on legal fees to support scholarships, youth rehabilitation centers, mental wellness or grassroots organizations trying to guide youths.

“This is a preventative measure? What does it prevent?” Mason said. “So you got somebody that goes to a birthday party that’s on a gang list around some other gang members. Now you go in and arrest them. What did you prevent? People from rehabilitating?”

Mason said reconciliation between police and the community was unrealistic in his lifetime. Police need to change their whole culture, he said.

But he expressed hope for the next generation.

“More and more youth are becoming upset and angry at the old status quo,” Mason said. “And they’re not trying to do it peacefully, whether people think the new generation is soft or whatever. They’re not soft. They’re just tactful, and they’re getting tired.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas City Democrat risks exile from party after vote on transgender athletes

TOPEKA — A day after casting a decisive vote to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a transgender athlete ban, Rep. Marvin Robinson appeared on a conservative radio talk show to defend his vote.

Robinson, a Kansas City Democrat, said a colleague had told him transgender teens would kill themselves if the legislation were to become law. The unnamed legislator asked Robinson if he would feel blame and guilt for their deaths.

“I had to gasp. I was like, God, how cruel of a question,” Robinson told host Pete Mundo on Thursday on KCMO-FM.

The Legislature on Wednesday voted to override the governor’s veto with the minimum number of votes needed in the House. Robinson broke from party ranks to join 83 Republicans in their support for the bill, which bans transgender and cisgender girls from playing together from the time they enter kindergarten. The Democratic governor had vetoed similar bills in each of the past two years.

Robinson’s vote sparked outrage among Democrats who felt betrayed. State party officials issued a statement calling for Robinson to resign.

“If Rep. Robinson is going to allow hate to overrule his commitment to Democratic values, he needs to step aside and let a real Democrat represent his district,” said Brandie Armstrong, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party’s LGBTQ+ Caucus. “Democrats barely have representation in Kansas as it is. The least someone who claims to be part of our party can do is represent our ideals.”

Robinson is a first-term representative from a district where 80% or more of the vote routinely favors Democrats. Earlier in the session, Robinson voted against the transgender athlete bill. But in recent weeks, Robinson increasingly voted with Republicans on a wide range of issues, including anti-abortion bills, vouchers for private schools, and a “women’s bill of rights” that establishes no rights and blocks transgender people from public spaces.

Melinda Lavon, chair of the KDP’s Progressive Caucus, said the rare “safe blue districts” in Kansas present Democrats with an opportunity to “push the boundary.” Lavon said Robinson’s vote to override the governor’s veto “is an affront to basic empathy.”

“The Democratic Party in Kansas is a big tent, with diversity in political thought and approaches,” Lavon said. “But Republicans excommunicate party members for endorsing positions that the GOP leadership dislikes. We can treat each other better than that, but it’s vital for the Democrats in Kansas to hold each other accountable on our basic values. The Progressive Caucus looks forward to supporting a progressive candidate.”

Two Republicans — Rep. Mark Schreiber, of Emporia, and Rep. David Younger, of Ulysses — split from party ranks to join Democrats in opposing the veto override. Neither faced apparent retribution for their votes.

In his radio appearance, Robinson said he didn’t view transgender athletes as a hot topic, but “it became like this snowballing gigantic issue.”

“I thought that I was voting for civility and inclusion and kindness,” Robinson said. “People turned it into something different.”

Robinson said he would feel no guilt or blame for the deaths of transgender kids who kill themselves in response to the legislation.

“The very first thing I would do is pray for their souls and ask God to bless their families and their classmates and their neighbors,” Robinson said.

The Democratic Party, Robinson said, “needs to understand” that regular people are “just trying to survive.”

“I think they’ve kind of neglected the fact that they’re supposed to be there for the working underclass,” Robinson said.

House Minority Leader Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, said in a statement that the vote was disappointing and caused “warranted and understandable fear in families across the state.” He said Democrats would work to protect and defend each Kansan’s right to live free of government control.

“It’s sad that rather than keep the focus on the vulnerable youth most affected by this policy, coverage is centered on a rogue, misguided legislator,” Miller said. “I hope we can shift the focus to victims and away from politicians.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Defiant transgender children, filled with love and rage, march on Kansas Statehouse

TOPEKA — A throng of angry queer and transgender children marched Friday evening on the Kansas Statehouse grounds in joyful defiance of legislators who promote state-sponsored discrimination.

As the crowd of 200 children and adults gathered on the south side of the Capitol, individuals stepped forward, one by one, to deliver speeches bubbling with love or rage or fear. Some had recently come out, some had never spoken up, and some were high on gender euphoria.

The recurring themes at the demonstration, which was part of the National March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy: They refuse to go back into the closet, and they are eager to vote.

Ian Benalcázar, a 13-year-old trans boy from Lawrence who dressed in a Pinkie Pie cardigan, told the crowd: “I am what they are scared of.”

“I can’t believe that I, a child, has to explain why I deserve to live, to breathe and to be happy,” Benalcázar said. “I should be worrying about my grades, not whether or not I’ll be a victim of a hate crime on my way to the bus stop.”

Cassandra Robinson, who will be 10 years old next week, appeared in a T-shirt that reads: “inspired by the STRONG WOMEN in my life.” Standing on the south steps of the Statehouse, the Topeka resident directed her comments to the legislators who work inside.

“This is kind of my first time doing this, so sorry if I stutter or something,” Robinson said. “It’s stupid how the people in there get to decide how we live our lives and how we do stuff. And I feel like all of the cis people should mind their own business, and they should put some LGBTQ in charge.”

The GOP-dominated Legislature this year has advanced numerous bills that target transgender children, including proposals that would restrict gender-affirming care and ban transgender kids from playing with their cisgender peers. A “women’s bill of rights” would establish a politically charged definition of “woman” to exclude transgender women from gender-specific public spaces.

“Those in power who are so desperate to pass this cruel legislation can no longer be excused by ignorance,” said Fable Briggs of Lawrence. “The data is being presented to them over and over again. They simply do not care what’s true or right. They care only for the comfort of those who will vote for them.”

Rep. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a Topeka Democrat who participated in the march, said lawmakers should be working together to solve problems everybody faces instead of putting targets on people’s backs in order to score political points.

“You gotta help us out, wherever you’re from,” Schlingensiepen said. “You need to get politically engaged. You have gotta find ways to vote people out who don’t care about you, and who keep bringing these hateful bills to the floor in the House, and who are using you to divide and conquer voters.”

Raiden Gonzalez said it was disappointing to see hurtful legislation being debated in Kansas and other states around the country.

“You’re seeing a lot of young people who are more just down to earth, trying to be heard,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s really disappointing, and the Kansas Legislature should be ashamed of themselves.”

People in the crowd held signs that read: “I want my friends to live,” “make no mistake / they are killing us,” “I’d rather have a trans kid than a dead one,” “support your sisters / not just your cis-ters,” “break the binary,” “trans lives are more important than cis feelings.”

One sign said, “F*** your KS SB180,” a reference to the women’s bill of rights, and featured a drawing of an individual raising a middle finger.

After the series of speeches, the crowd marched around the perimeter of the Statehouse grounds. Their chants could be heard from a couple of blocks away:

“Trans lives matter.”

“We’re here. We’re queer. We’re not going anywhere.”

“Vote them out.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Laughter and name-calling at Kansas House debate on the latest installment of trans athlete ban

TOPEKA — Rep. Heather Meyer hoped she wouldn’t have to stand again before her colleagues on the House floor and talk about the life-threatening impact of hateful legislation on transgender children, including her own.

For a third straight year, Republicans scheduled a debate on a proposal to ban transgender girls from competing in sports with cisgender girls — a scenario that involves approximately two student athletes in Kansas schools.

Meyer, an Overland Park Democrat, said Republican fears on the topic amounted to “nonsense.”

“Every time y’all bring these bills up, you’re gonna see me,” Meyer said during Wednesday’s debate. “I’m not going away. The rest of us aren’t either. I’m gonna stand here and I’m gonna keep fighting for our trans kids. And I don’t care if you all don’t like it or not.

“You’re never gonna get rid of me. Even if I lose my seat. I literally don’t care. I’ll still be here knocking on your door telling you about how our kids matter. Our trans kids matter, and they should not be bullied back into the closet by legislators of all people.”

This year’s debate, which lasted about 90 minutes, mirrored past discussions on transgender athletes. Republicans refused to acknowledge a distinction between transgender girls and “biological males.” Democrats berated them for using talking points spawned by anti-LGBTQ hate groups. In the end, the bill advanced on a 79-40 vote with final action planned for Thursday.

The Legislature adopted similar legislation in each of the past two sessions but couldn’t override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto, which requires 84 votes in the House.

“Let’s hope the third time is the charm,” Rep. Barb Wasinger said in a meeting with House Republicans before the debate. “It’s being heard on Ash Wednesday.”

Wasinger, a Hays Republican, led the charge to pass House Bill 2238, which would limit participation in girls sports to students who were born with female reproductive systems. The law would apply to just two students in Kansas, according to the Kansas State High School Activities Association.

The way Wasinger put it, “biological men should not be competing against women.”

Men have stronger bodies, stronger bones and greater cardiovascular health, Wasinger said.

“They just can do better,” she told colleagues.

Rep. Chuck Smith, R-Pittsburg, said he asked officials at the Kansas State High School Activities Association why this issue involves so few students in Kansas. The answer, Smith said, is that local school leaders help guide decisions on who participates in sports.

“If a boy can dominate a girl’s sport, the school is supposed to not let them play,” Smith said.

Wasinger responded: “Well, that’s a lovely fairytale. That’s nice.”

Her Republican colleagues roared with laughter.

Later, during debate on the House floor, Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, suggested the laughter wouldn’t stop.

“This bill is so 2021,” Highberger said. “They’re gonna start laughing at you behind your backs at some of those conferences you go to: ‘Psst: Did you hear? Kansas is still working on the trans sports bill? Oh, my God!’ You and I know this bill is about a made-up problem.”

Meyer objected to hypothetical examples proposed by Republicans in which men would suddenly decide to identify as women in order to have a competitive advantage. That’s not how it works, Meyer said.

“There is not a child who’s gonna say: ‘You know what? I want to be more competitive at sports, so I’m going to be a woman.’ That doesn’t happen,” Meyer said. “That’s absolutely ridiculous. There’s not been a single case of that occurring. None.”

Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Shawnee Democrat and member of the LGBTQ community, said “you know you’re in a marginalized group because your rights are voted on every couple of years.”

She reminded lawmakers that the model legislation was a product of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that claims a “homosexual agenda” will destroy Christianity and society. The attention the group received from promoting the transgender athlete ban, which preys on vast misunderstanding of what it means to be transgender, inspired other groups to join the cause.

“These hate groups found traction in using girls and women in sports as a way to influence legislators to pass laws banning transgender girls from competing in sports with cisgender girls,” Ruiz said.

The issue has proven to be lucrative for fundraising efforts, she added.

Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, questioned Wasinger about how kids were supposed to prove their gender if it is called into question. Wasinger was forced to admit the proposed law would require a physical examination.

“It would be subjecting women to a genital examination in order to play sports,” Woodard said. “Don’t talk to me about women’s fairness up here. You all wouldn’t even stand for women being able to have the right to vote during the State of the State. How dare you.”

His comment was a reference to the governor’s State of the State speech, where only Democrats provided standing ovations.

Woodard, who is also a member of the LGBTQ community, said Republicans won’t even grant a hearing on legislation that would protect against discrimination — “but sure, let’s pass bills that target two people in Kansas.”

“Just for simply trying to organize testimony I’ve been called a ‘pedophile,’ a ‘groomer,’ and a quote, so I don’t get gaveled down, ‘faggot,’ ” Woodard said. “That is the rhetoric that is happening because of what you all are doing. Stop passing bills like this. Focus on actually helping Kansans.”

Rep. Clarke Sanders, R-Salina, pointed out the bill text doesn’t include the word “transgender” or “LGBTQ.”

“It simply says that biological males should not be allowed to compete on a biological female teams,” Sanders said.

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn says the proposed ban on transgender athletes doesn’t address any of the inequities she faced as a high school athlete. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, said the inequities she faced as a high school athlete “had nothing to do with the contents of this bill.”

“We got hand-me-down uniforms, we often shared practice space, and our events were never promoted as much as the guys’ teams,” Vaughn said. “So if we really cared about fairness in girls sports, why are we not advocating for equal funding and resources for female athletes?

“Or what’s more, why aren’t we demanding pay equality for professional female athletes? Or why aren’t we fighting to eliminate or extend the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases to seek justice for the many female athletes who are sexually abused as children? The reason is because this bill is not about fairness. It’s about discrimination.”

As Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, put it: “This is a shameful piece of legislation — hateful, bigoted and dangerous. This is more about promoting an extremist political agenda than it is about women’s sports.”

At the end of the debate, Wasinger lamented the name calling she had endured.

“Today I was just called a bigot, misogynist, extremist, shameful and hateful, and I’m offended because I have not been hateful to anyone in this body,” Wasinger said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas Senate flat tax would cut $1 for low-wage earners — and hand a windfall to the top one percent

TOPEKA — A flat tax plan moving through the Senate is structured to provide minimal relief to low-income Kansans while granting a windfall to high wage earners.

An individual who earns $15,000 would see just $1 in tax savings under the plan, according to an analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides research on state and federal tax policies. Meanwhile, the top 20% of wage earners would receive about 70% of the total $764 million tax cut.

Senate President Ty Masterson championed the flat tax proposal as a way to benefit all Kansans, rather than “those less fortunate.” Senate Bill 169 would apply a universal 4.75% income tax rate, replacing a current structure that applies a 3.1% rate for income under $15,000, 5.25% for income between $15,000 and $30,000, and 5.7% for income above $30,000.

Masterson connected the flat tax proposal to Senate Bill 248, which rolls back tax relief on food, except for a select list of “healthy” staples. The idea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars by leaving the state sales tax in place on non-healthy food so the state can afford the flat tax cut.

Emily Fetsch, director of fiscal policy at Kansas Action for Children, said the plan is concerning because it is expensive and overwhelmingly benefits the highest-income Kansans. KAC promotes economic policy that will improve the lives of Kansas children and families.

“We have been here before, and we know how hard it is to make changes to income tax once we’ve made this tax cut,” Fetsch said. “Where they usually have to make changes is to other types of taxes — increased sales tax, property tax, excise tax.”

The Senate tax committee passed the flat tax bill Tuesday. The bill exempts the first $5,225 of income to avoid imposing a tax increase on the lowest wage bracket — by the slimmest margin possible.

Under current law, someone earning $15,000 and paying 3.1% would have a $465 tax bill. Under the proposed flat tax, someone earning the same amount would pay 4.75% on $9,775 in income for a tax bill of $464.

At $764 million, the institute’s projected annual cost of the flat tax plan is significantly higher than the $566 million projection by the state budget director.

The institute’s analysis shows the bottom 20% of wage earners — those earning less than $25,000 — would see an average tax cut of $49. Those who earn between $25,000 and $53,000 would get $95. Those who earn between $53,000 and $86,000 would get $190. Those who earn between $86,000 and $131,000 would get $464.

The top 1% of wage earners, who make more than $622,000, would see an average tax break of $12,795.

Critics of the plan have drawn comparisons to former Gov. Sam Brownback’s failed “tax experiment,” which included elimination of the income tax for businesses and a reduction of the income tax for high-wage earners, in 2012.

Fetsch, the KAC analyst, said the flat tax proposal is similar to the 2012 cuts because they both involve a dramatic change to income tax rates that will lead to significant revenue loss. That would jeopardize the state’s ability to address unmet needs, she said, such as fully funding special education in K-12 public schools or reducing the waiting list for disability services.

Proponents of the flat tax say it will help reverse years of population losses by attracting people to move to Kansas.

Nationally, Fetsch said, 1.5% of people move each year, and those decisions are based on jobs and family, not tax policy. Many states have changed tax policy in recent years, she said, but that didn’t coincide with mass migration.

She also pointed out the state didn’t see a population surge during the Brownback years, despite similar claims made in support of the 2012 tax cuts.

“The talking points of migration and economic booms and trickle-down economics are all apparent in both policy pushes,” Fetsch said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Double whammy: Top Kansas Republican wants to roll back food tax relief to afford flat tax plan

TOPEKA — Senate President Ty Masterson’s “broader picture” for tax policy changes came into focus Monday with a plan that involves rolling back tax relief on food so the state can afford to cut income taxes for the highest wage earners.

The Senate tax committee passed a flat tax plan that would lower the income tax rate for all wage brackets to 4.75% at an estimated cost of about $566 million in the next calendar year. The impact on state revenue would be lessened by applying the sales tax on food to just “healthy” items.

Masterson appeared before the committee to promote the two pieces of legislation.

“Is this meant to only help those less fortunate? I think the answer is no,” Masterson said. “They’re to be helped, but it’s to help all Kansans, not just those less fortunate, because the structure’s there. The best thing for them is a job. We can’t keep on the train of buying economic development. You have to put a tax structure in place where those jobs remain. And so that helps everybody.”

He praised Gov. Laura Kelly for effectively using her “axe the tax” line during last year’s gubernatorial campaign, where she touted passage of legislation to gradually eliminate the 6.5% state sales tax on food. But he urged lawmakers to consider the “broader picture.”

Masterson’s proposal would repeal the gradual elimination of state sales tax on food, which would reduce annual revenues by about $450 million when fully implemented on Jan. 1, 2025. Instead, Senate Bill 248 would exempt select food items from both state and local sales tax, reducing state revenues by about $284 million in the next fiscal year.

The goal, Masterson said, is not to incentivize healthy food choices. The plan is to afford tax cuts elsewhere, he said.

“You can do things in an overall package, like take tax off Social Security, and if you’re truly interested in helping those in their golden years, you want to look at stuff like that,” Masterson said. “The other thing we need to do is look at the structure that we’re under. The states that are doing the best are the zero income tax states. And this is not even an attempt to get there. The second tier are those with the single rate flat tax. So the structure is actually the most important thing to get to. And this would allow you to get to a structure with a lower rate.”

Opponents of the “healthy foods” legislation include grocers and family advocates who say the change would be confusing, difficult to implement, and reduce revenue for local governments. They also raised concerns about which items qualify as “healthy.”

The list of healthy items is based on foods that qualify for the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. The legislation specifies fruits and vegetables; meat, poultry and fish; eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt; infant formula; whole wheat or whole grain bread; corn or flour tortillas; pasta; brown rice, bulgur, oatmeal and whole grain barley; breakfast cereals; beans and nuts; and peanut butter.

Jami Reever, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, said one in four Kansas kids lives in a household that cannot afford to eat nutritious meals.

Additionally, Reever said, one in six Kansans lives in a food desert, which means they don’t have access to a grocery store. Those who get their food from a convenience store, for example, might have to choose white rice over brown rice because that is what is available.

“Families have to make really tough choices every single day about what they feed their families,” Reever said. “I think it’s better that kids go to bed with a full tummy than with no food at all. And I’m worried that by just adding on to the food bill, they’ll have to make some really impossible choices.”

Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican who chairs the tax committee, took issue with mailers sent by Kansas Appleseed that urged support for eliminating the sales tax on food. Tyson’s complaint: The sales tax reduction passed last year applied to “groceries,” not “food.”

Tyson: “Your fliers were absolutely misleading, then, because you said remove it on food.”

Reever: “We called it the food sales tax.”

Tyson: “Yeah, which is misleading.”

Reever: “I thank you for pointing that out.”

The committee concluded the hearing on the sales tax bill in the morning, then met again over the lunch hour to consider other proposals. They included Senate Bill 169, an alternative to the Kansas Chamber’s proposed flat tax plan.

Under current law, the income tax rate is 3.1% for income under $15,000, 5.25% for income between $15,000 and $30,000, and 5.7% for income above $30,000. The dollar amounts are doubled for couples filing jointly.

SB 169 would eliminate the income tax for those earning less than $5,225 annually and apply a 4.75% rate to all others.

Critics of the flat tax compare it to former Gov. Sam Brownback’s “tax experiment” because it involves a dramatic sudden reduction in state revenue and disproportionately favors the highest wage earners.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand why the committee is going down this path,” said Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City. “We tried something very similar with the Brownback tax experiment. My concern is not only is it a more aggressive tax, once again, it’s really effectively reducing the tax rate for the wealthiest Kansans. The second thing is that we simply can’t afford this.”

Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, said he wanted to “make sure it’s on the record” that the flat tax is different from legislation passed in 2012, which cut the rate for top earners and eliminated the income tax for businesses.

Peck said he supported the 2012 plan and believes it would have worked if the Legislature had controlled spending.

“That’s ancient history — or at least history, not ancient,” Peck said. “And so I just thought that I would mention that this is not the Brownback tax plan. This is the Legislature’s attempt to do some things to make our state more competitive for our workers, for bringing business and citizens to our state.”

The committee passed the flat tax bill on a party line vote, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas senator vents wrath at state health officials: ‘Recognize your inadequacy’

TOPEKA — Sen. Mark Steffen on Monday described Kansas health officials as inadequate during the COVID-19 pandemic and accused them of intentionally pursuing ineffective ways to slow the spread of the deadly disease.

Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, delivered a fiery speech at the end of a hearing on Senate Bill 6, legislation he introduced to strip state and county health officers of their authority to fight infectious disease. He addressed his comments to opponents of the bill, including the state’s deputy health secretary, a lobbyist for local health departments and a pediatrician.

“Let’s talk about credibility,” Steffen said. “Y’all talk about this need to be able to prevent the spread of disease. You didn’t do it. You can’t do it. Help me understand what part of this COVID response that your mandates, your quarantines, that any of it made a difference. You can’t show. You knew beforehand that it wouldn’t work. You made it up as you went. You had no science. You have no science now. If I’m incorrect, please stand up and show me your scientific studies that can prove to me that anything you did worked.”

Steffen, an anesthesiologist who was investigated for prescribing a discredited treatment of livestock de-wormer to COVID-19 patients, continued his speech without giving anyone a chance to stand up.

“Your hubris is astounding today,” Steffen said. “To stand up here and pretend that you all did anything that was effective during that COVID response is ludicrous. But bring the studies if you’ve got them. If you don’t, recognize your inadequacy in the field of public health. Recognize it. Admit it. Regain our trust. Now, you don’t have it, and you certainly didn’t gain it today.”

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and state health officials ordered social distancing, quarantines and the wearing of face masks during the early months of the pandemic. The governor also closed schools for the final two months of the school year and ordered a statewide lockdown in April 2020, at a time when little was known about the virus and personal protective equipment was scarce. Free, safe and effective vaccines became widely available a year later.

In response to questions for this story, former health secretary Lee Norman, who oversaw the state’s response to the pandemic, pointed to studies on ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, how lockdowns saved lives and the effectiveness of vaccines.

“As a state, our medical, nursing and other health care professionals really rose to the occasion and did remarkably well, considering there was no vaccine or therapeutics,” Norman said. “The public health measures were and are critically important and successful.”

State law that is more than a century old gives the state health secretary, an appointed position, and county health officers broad authority to impose restrictions in the interest of public health. Steffen’s law would unravel that authority.

Under his proposal, health officials would merely issue recommendations. School teachers and administrators would no longer be considered mandatory reporters for infectious disease. Law enforcement officials would no longer have to enforce health orders.

The proposal was championed by a dozen individuals, including those who deny the safety or efficacy of masks and vaccines. They cheered Steffen’s closing remarks.

None of the supporters were licensed doctors trained in infectious disease.

“Why did Kansas officials ignore high quality experienced medical advice and continue to enforce these ineffective policies that control the Kansas populace and make Kansas children suffer horribly? This is uncaring tyranny,” said Festus Krebs III, whose license to practice medicine in Kansas expired in 1990, according to the Board of Healing Arts online database.

Nicole Vannicola, a Republican precinct committeewoman from Eudora, said her 10-year-old son was unable to wear a mask during the pandemic because he struggled to breathe. As a result, she said, the doctor refused to see him for a medical condition that needed attention.

The doctor proposed a workaround, she said, in which he would attend to the child in her care in the parking lot, where nurses could hold up a sheet while the boy undressed.

“That was the best that he could come up with for not doing any harm, for the oath that he’s taken,” Vannicola said. “These are the things that happen to the people when we are made to follow these guidelines instead of giving us the option.”

Melissa Campbell told lawmakers she has been entrusted by God to make decisions about her children and their livelihoods.

“I do not co-parent with the government,” Campbell said.

Campbell also submitted written testimony in which she falsely claimed that “thousands of people die from sudden cardiac arrest” after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than 2.2 million Kansans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. There are no verified deaths associated with the vaccines in Kansas.

The virus, on the other hand, has killed at least 9,995 Kansans since it was first detected in the state three years ago, including 26 deaths reported between Feb. 1 and Feb. 8.

Greg Smith, of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, supports changing state law so law enforcement officers don’t have to enforce health orders. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Greg Smith, a former state senator who is now with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement is not equipped to remove someone from their home during a public health emergency. But during questioning from Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, he acknowledged that the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office was never tasked with carrying out a health order during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he wasn’t aware of any law enforcement agency that did.

Ashley Goss, deputy secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said Steffen’s law would restrict the state’s ability to track the Ebola virus, even when someone entering Kansas has been exposed overseas, as well as the ability to treat patients for sexually transmitted diseases.

Dennis Kriesel, of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said current law allows people to challenge a public health policy in court if they feel they have been unjustly forced into isolation or quarantine.

“I would like to remind the committee that there is an assumption that people also have the freedom to be free of disease going into schools, going out into the public,” he said. “There are a number of Kansans who have exercised their right for religious and medical exemptions from certain immunizations, allowing someone to ignore recommendation, knowing they have measles, to expose others to it, puts lives at risk.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas woman who killed her rapist faces long odds for clemency

TOPEKA — Sarah Gonzales-McLinn faces long odds in her bid for clemency based on the rarity in which the Prisoner Review Board recommends approval, the willingness of governors to wield their power, the severity of her crime and opposition from those close to Hal Sasko.

Gonzales-McLinn murdered Sasko in January 2014 after he held her captive in his Lawrence home and raped her repeatedly for months. A group of advocates filed a clemency application on her behalf in December.

Kansas Reflector on Jan. 30 published an in-depth story detailing the abuse, which was substantiated by police documents. The jury wasn’t allowed to hear the evidence of abuse during her 2015 trial, where she was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a minimum of 50 years in prison. She later accepted a plea deal that lowered the required prison time to at least 25 years in exchange for giving up the right to appeal.

Gonzales-McLinn’s supporters hope to persuade Gov. Laura Kelly to grant Gonzales-McLinn clemency. The governor’s office won’t comment on the situation before the Prisoner Review Board makes a recommendation.

“The true purpose of clemency is twofold — to provide access to mercy and to correct an injustice,” said Dave Ranney, a retired journalist and advocate for Gonzales-McLinn. “Most people, I think, would agree that someone who’s been through as much sexual and mental trauma as Sarah has deserves mercy. And the notion that an abused individual who kills his or her abuser is somehow forbidden from discussing that abuse in front of a jury is an injustice that warrants correction.”

The Prisoner Review Board is tasked with evaluating the scores of clemency applications it receives every year and making recommendations to the governor. The board has recommended clemency for 25 men and two women since its inception in 2011, according to data provided by the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Kelly and her four predecessors combined have used their clemency power a total of 18 times in 20 years.

Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius issued one pardon during her six years in office. Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson pardoned four people as he filled out her term.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback established the Prisoner Review Board through an executive order in 2011. He issued a pardon in 2017 for a man who received recommendation from the board.

Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer granted clemency to three individuals, including two recommended by the board.

Kelly granted clemency to eight individuals in 2021. Only one of them had been recommended by the board.

When governors use their power to issue a pardon or commute a sentence, it typically involves drug-related or financial crimes. Gonzales-McLinn, who is 28 and has been incarcerated for nine years, presents an unprecedented argument.

Her application for clemency effectively asks the governor: How much time should a woman spend in prison for killing her rapist?

The answer is complicated by the violent way Gonzales-McLinn killed Sasko. She spiked his drink, bound his limbs, slashed his throat and wrote “FREEDOM” on the wall in his blood. When police questioned her, she admitted her actions.

Anne Sasko, who has communicated with the Prisoner Review Board, said she and her daughter have to “relive this nightmare” every time the news media writes about her ex-husband. She believes Gonzales-McLinn should remain in prison.

“She chose to stay, then she chose to murder,” Anne Sasko said in an email to Kansas Reflector. “Aggravative, heinous and definitely premeditated, nearly decapitating another human being. I can only hope you focus on the true victims in this case and just understand we are in pain every single day because of what she chose to do to him.”

Gonzales-McLinn moved in with Hal Sasko when she was 17 and he was 50. He offered to take care of her, providing access to alcohol and drugs. After she turned 18, he told her she would have to have sex with him as a condition of staying, and that she couldn’t leave until she paid him thousands of dollars for rent, phone bills, and unwanted cosmetic surgery. He threatened to sue her and wreck her credit rating if she left. She said she would drink herself into a nearly unconscious state in order to have sex with him, by her estimation, two or three times a week for 10 months.

“I wish I could say that I was just this ideal 17-year-old girl when I moved in there,” Gonzales-McLinn said in a phone interview from prison. “But that’s not true. If I was, I don’t think he would have picked me, and I don’t think the tactics would have worked as well. But for the year that I lived there with him, I just felt like all of the pain building up and building up.”

Her story was supported by a psychologist and confidential police reports based on interviews with Hal Sasko’s family and friends. The police reports showed he favored girls like Gonzales-McLinn who had been “abused, battered, dumped, trouble with the law, or massive complaints about their moms.” At the time of the murder, he was grooming twin 16-year-old girls whose mother had inquired about obtaining a restraining order.

Becca Spielman, program director for the Center for Safety and Empowerment at YWCA Northeast Kansas, works regularly with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking. Spielman said there are misconceptions about why someone would stay in an abusive relationship, “and I think that comes from a lack of understanding about how complex these issues of violence are.”

Typically, she said, there isn’t violence at the onset of a relationship. There is usually some level of commitment. A survivor may feel tied to her abuser because of housing needs, job security or substance abuse. Financial abuse, Spielman said, is evident in 98% of the YWCA’s clients.

“We see financial abuse being a huge part of the violence that has occurred,” Spielman said. “That level of dependency, it becomes impossible to leave or to get some level of independence.”

Gonzales-McLinn felt like her only way to escape was to kill herself or kill Hal Sasko.

“I never had this mentality of, ‘I’m just going to get out scot-free, that’s what I’m fighting for, that’s what I want.’ But I did always want what was fair,” Gonzales-McLinn said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Survivors of sexual abuse plead for changes in Kansas law that protects pedophiles

TOPEKA, Kansas — Four survivors of childhood sexual abuse revealed details about the worst moments of their lives in a public rebuke of state law that protects pedophiles from criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits.

Backed by a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers, the women emphasized that it can take years before a survivor accepts what happened and is willing to talk about it. Most people who are victimized as children won’t share their experiences until they are over age 50.

Kansas state law requires requires survivors to file a civil lawsuit by age 21. Proposed legislation would remove the statute of limitations for both civil and criminal cases, and open the door to retroactive litigation dating to 1984. The Legislature eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal cases in 2013, but didn’t make the law retroactive.

State law fell under renewed scrutiny last week when a Kansas Bureau of Investigation report into abuse by Catholic clergy was made public. The four-year inquiry found 188 clergy members at four dioceses in Kansas were suspected of criminal acts dating to 1950.

The KBI referred 30 cases involving 14 clergy members to district attorneys, but no criminal charges were filed — primarily because of the statute of limitations.

In a news conference Thursday at the Statehouse, Rep. Bob Lewis, a Republican from Garden City and attorney who has worked with sexual abuse survivors, emphasized that the problem isn’t contained to the Catholic church. Lewis said childhood sexual abuse happens in every institution where there are children.

Kim Bergman, Tess Ramirez, Lesa Patterson-Kinsey and Joe Cheray shared their stories at the news conference. Kansas Reflector doesn’t identify survivors of sexual abuse without their consent, and the women granted permission to use their names.

A ridiculous rule

Bergman sat in her car in the parking lot of a Lawrence gym operated by her former coach, who had abused her at a camp when she was 12.

She was afraid he would hurt other girls. She was right.

“I wanted desperately to walk into the lobby and announce to everyone that David Byrd is a pedophile and should not be trusted, then froze,” Bergman said. “To this day, I feel horrible that I wasn’t strong enough to do more.”

Bergman said she had been vulnerable as a child because of difficulties at home, and Byrd took advantage of her. She described her attempt to make him stop touching her while watching TV in a hotel room.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I finally got up and sat behind him to try to get away. Instead, David turned and glared at me and asked in a way that I’ll never forget, ‘Why did you move?’ ”

He proceeded to abuse her further. She felt trapped.

When she got home, she told her best friend about her coach’s actions. At age 12, she said, “neither one of us could understand the magnitude of what happened.”

Later, her therapist reported the abuse, and she was interviewed by police. By the time she was strong enough to talk about what happened, but she was told time had run out.

“I knew there would be future victims, and that they would have to face David on their own because of a ridiculous rule that stated my abuse no longer counted,” Bergman said.

A decade after he abused Bergman, he did the same to Ramirez.

Ramirez said she was in shock when she told her best friend about the abuse. Her friend told her, “that’s not a secret that gets to be kept.” If not for her, Ramirez said, “my story would have a different ending.”

Byrd pleaded guilty in 2009 to indecent liberties with a child and received a 30-month sentence.

Ramirez said the harm Byrd caused her and other girls could have been prevented if earlier victims had been allowed to expose his actions in court after they turned 21.

“A survivor has to accept what’s happened to them, be comfortable talking about it publicly, and have the means to file a lawsuit before they turn 21,” Ramirez said. “Now, it may be hard to tell because I’m standing in a room full of incredibly brave people, but talking about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you is incredibly difficult.”

Ramirez said she is 29 and only recently became comfortable talking about her abuse publicly.

As she looked up at the row of cameras pointed at her in the crowded room, she added: “And I wouldn’t say this is comfortable.”

Pray for relief

Cheray grew up in a small, predominantly Catholic town in Kansas.

She went to live with her grandparents at age 5, and her grandfather began sexually abusing her at the age of 10. She tried to run away and twice tried to kill herself.

In a moment of despair, she turned to her priest.

“The only advice he told me was to go back home and pray that the situation gets better,” Cheray said. “How could anyone tell a child to go back to being sexually abused and pray that it gets better? I knew that was really code for, ‘Your grandfather is president of the altar guild and a significant financial contributor to the church.’ ”

Patterson-Kinsey spent her childhood trying to avoid her abusive father.

“It was extremely confusing,” she said. “I didn’t like it. He told me not to tell anybody, and I didn’t know who I would tell. I wanted to pretend like it didn’t happen.”

For years, she was reluctant to say anything because she wanted to protect her mother and sister, who were also victimized by her father. The story of her abuse “wasn’t just my story,” she said. In a small town, everybody would know about the family.

By the time she could talk about it, she was about 40 years old.

“My time ran out,” Patterson-Kinsey said. “My time ran out when I was in college.”

She added: “Passage of this bill will give other survivors time to hold their abusers accountable.”

Waking up

Senate Republicans didn’t give a hearing to a similar bill that was introduced last year, despite pleading from Bergman and others.

Lewis, the Republican House member, said childhood sexual assault is an “extraordinarily important issue that our state is finally beginning to take seriously.”

“There is a common element in all of their stories,” Lewis said. “That element is that the child sex abuse has robbed them of agency. It’s robbed them of their voice. They’ve been shut down and told to go away, ignored.”

Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Democrat from Overland Park, said there is more interest in the issue following the release of the KBI report on clergy abuse.

Holscher said some people in the past wanted to dismiss concerns because they thought the abuse was the result of just three or four priests. The implication of 188 clergy members in the KBI report “woke some people up,” she said.

“Phones are ringing off the hook from people out there across Kansas calling into the KBI, calling to us as legislators, talking about the situation,” Holscher said.

Passage of proposed legislation would open the door to lawsuits against the Catholic church and other institutions. Holscher said she doesn’t anticipate the state would be flooded with cases, but she acknowledged there could be resistance to changing the law.

“The pushback could be the fact that when people bring civil cases, we’re talking money,” Holscher said.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

Cash, whiskey and cigars: How the sports gambling industry exploited Kansas legislators

TOPEKA — A New York Times investigation into the gambling industry’s bare-knuckled lobbying efforts provides insight into concessions Kansas lawmakers provided when they legalized sports betting earlier this year.

Among the revelations from the report, published Sunday as part of a series on “a relentless nationwide campaign” to expand sports betting: Kansas lawmakers slashed an already generous tax rate from 20% to 10%, and exempted some bets from being taxed at all, before passing the sports gambling package after midnight in the final hours of the legislative session.

The final vote came two days after a lobbying event that promised “something for everyone.” There, the New York Times documented how Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican who helped orchestrate the sports gambling package, reveled in 30-year-old Irish whiskey while Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat, secured an extra bag of pricey Honduras cigars. At the party, Pittman called it a “terrible” bill, but he voted in favor it anyway.

After the law took effect in September, Kansans wagered $350 million in the first two months — yielding just $271,000 in tax revenue.

Max Kautsch, president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, said the New York Times report “drives home the need for greater transparency in the legislative process.”

“Kansans should be disappointed to learn this holiday season that our leaders in Topeka are more interested in giving unprecedented tax breaks to the gambling industry than in meeting their fiduciary duties to be good stewards of public funds,” Kautsch said.

The sports gambling package exemplifies transparency concerns with the last-minute avalanche of bills the Legislature passes in the closing days of the session, often with unvetted policy provisions inserted under pressure from dark interests.

Kansas Reflector previously reported on this practice, which is designed to avoid public scrutiny.

“Perhaps if Rep. Barker and his allies feared that their constituents would learn about these acts against the public interest in real time,” Kautsch said, “rather than months later as the result of a nationwide investigative report that chose to kick off an article totaling thousands upon thousands of words with an anecdote about whiskey and cigars in the Kansas Statehouse, they would think twice before leaving us with lumps of coal each legislative session.”

Lobbying rules

The flyer for an April 26 lobbying event invited all 165 legislators and special guests to enjoy prime rib, seafood, desserts, wine, craft beer, fine cigars, classic cars, single malt scotch and single barrel bourbon.

Twenty-one lobbyists sponsored the event, titled Cigars, Cars and Bars, at M&D Classic Car Storage, a few blocks north of the Statehouse on Kansas Avenue.

A New York Times reporter and photographer found Barker with Redbreast Irish whiskey and a Don Tomas cigar from Honduras.

“They keep a special bottle for me up there — they know I like it,” Barker told the Times. “I’m in my element when I have a whiskey and a cigar.”

John Federico, a powerful lobbyist who cosponsored the gathering, told the Times it was a social event and not a lobbying event.

Kansas law provides ample wiggle room for lobbyists and lawmakers — and makes it virtually impossible for journalists or the public to document the influence of such an event.

When every lawmaker is invited, lobbyists don’t need to itemize the costs on expense reports with the state ethics commission. Rules that restrict gifts to lawmakers provide exemptions for food and beverage.

And while Kansas law forbids gifts that cost more than $40, the cost of a gift can be split evenly among cosponsors to push it below the legal limit. A group of 10 lobbyists, for example, could provide a $300 gift — such as an expensive bottle of whiskey — to a legislator without violating the law.

Additionally, if the cost of a lobbying expense is less than $2 for a legislator, it doesn’t have to be reported. For an event with 165 legislators and 21 sponsors, the threshold would be $6,930.

Hitting the jackpot

The gambling industry’s fingerprints were on nearly every page of the 50-page sports gambling bill, the New York Times reported.

Barker and other legislative leaders agreed to cut in half the planned 20% tax rate — already substantially lower than the tax rate in other states. The bill also allows gambling companies to deduct “free bets” and other promotions from their taxable income.

None of the $271,000 in taxes the state collected on the first $350 million in bets will be used to fight gambling addiction.

Instead, lawmakers agreed to set aside most of the revenue for the construction of a sports facility. The questionable idea to lure the Kansas City Chiefs across state lines came from real estate developers who own 400 acres of land near the NASCAR racetrack, Sporting Kansas City soccer stadium and Hollywood Casino on the west edge of Kansas City.

The sports gambling package ensured casinos would get a cut of the action and expanded where sports betting is allowed, including at the racetrack and soccer stadium.

Barker wasn’t shy about inserting provisions that benefited lobbyists, including Federico, whose clients include Sporting Kansas City.

“John’s a good guy,” Barker told the Times. “I made sure they had something in our bill.”

Hollywood Casino funneled more than $60,000 in donations to campaign accounts, the Times found. Another $150,000 came from other casinos, lawyers and lobbyists.

Donors used networks of shell companies to skirt campaign finance laws that limit the amount of money a single candidate can receive, the New York Times reported.

Cover of darkness

The cigars at the April 26 “social event” were so expensive, legislators could only take three.

Pittman dispatched an aide to secure more.

“I have a little scam going on here,” Pittman joked to a New York Times reporter.

He acknowledged problems with the gambling package.

“The fact is, we’re not making that much money,” Pittman said. “It looks terrible.”

Two days later, Pittman’s “yes” vote helped the Senate pass the bill with the minimum number of votes required.

“Kansans are already betting on sports,” Pittman said during the Senate debate. “Many do it on illegal platforms that take money out of the state. Sports betting is not for everyone. This is just another avenue for avid players.”

Lawmakers were forced to consider votes on a wide array of legislation in the final two days of the session, including bills that had undergone rapid transformation. The official explanations provided to lawmakers seldom reveal the true effect of these last-minute, late-night deals, let alone the influence behind them.

The final hours of the session also included votes on the state budget, a $1.1 billion investment in the state pension system and a law that would have banned any state or local government official from imposing a mask mandate in response to an infectious disease outbreak.

During the debate on sports gambling, opponents raised concerns about gambling addiction, the paltry amount of state tax revenue generated and the decision to set aside most of that cash for a special fund to attract the Kansas City Chiefs to Kansas.

“We will destroy people’s lives,” said Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson. “We don’t know their names right now. We don’t know what they look like. But we do know that will happen.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Teacher alarmed by Kansas Republican taking photos of her home

TOPEKA — Sam Neill, a decorated public school teacher from Buhler, was alarmed Saturday to find Rep. Paul Waggoner taking photos of her house.

Neill described the ensuing encounter with Waggoner, a Republican who is seeking reelection, and a campaign volunteer in a widely circulated post on her personal Facebook page.

Waggoner wouldn’t tell her why he was taking the photos, and he didn’t respond to a phone call and email seeking comment for this story. His Democratic opponent, Garth Strand, said others in the central Kansas district have voiced similar complaints about Waggoner.

One resident reported seeing Waggoner place a campaign sign in his yard and take photos and video with it. Video obtained by Kansas Reflector shows Waggoner standing next to his own sign, appearing to take a selfie.

Neill is a communication arts and journalism teacher at Buhler High School. She was the 2018 Kansas Teacher of the Year and a 2021 Lowell Milken Center fellow, a prestigious national honor. She also is an outspoken critic of so-called “Parents Bill of Rights” legislation, which Waggoner supported.

“I wonder what will become of the pictures of my house?” Neill wrote. “Will they be shared somehow? Is this how constituents should be treated? When I asked questions about this, he did not give me a real answer. He walked away.”

Waggoner told her he was “just getting the whole picture,” Neill wrote. She assumed she was targeted because she has a Strand sign in her yard.

In a phone interview, Strand said Waggoner took photos of Neill’s house because she is a registered Republican.

“It seems Mr. Waggoner is hunting RINOs or something,” Strand said.

RINO is an acronym for “Republican in name only.”

Strand said he has never taken a photo of a constituent’s house.

“I would not feel comfortable doing that. And if I wanted to, I would certainly ask their permission,” Strand said. “His behavior as an elected public servant to do something like that is very odd. And as you can tell by the comments, there’s a lot of people who share that feeling.”

In her Facebook post, Neill said a campaign volunteer was following Waggoner from a block away.

“When she walked by, I asked her why he might need a picture of my house,” Neill wrote. “She said she didn’t know. She then asked me if I was Sam Neill. I replied that I was. At that point her responses became very short. She said, anyone can take a picture of anyone’s house. She invited me to go take a picture of Representative Waggoner’s house if I wanted. As she walked off, she hollered back, ‘I am sure we can act like adults and not make a big deal of this.’ ”

More than 100 people shared Neill’s post, which had more than 100 comments on it by Monday morning.

Allison Reed identified herself as the campaign volunteer in a reply to Neill’s post. Reed then commented another 35 times.

“I had no knowledge of the event and you were demanding I answer your questions,” Reed wrote. “I was absolutely stunned. I asked who you were because I wanted to make sure who I was talking to. My answers were short because I had no idea what was going on. You don’t want a debate on social media but yet you’re willing to smear the name of a elected official you’ve never supported and a campaign volunteer you don’t know either. Seriously? As adults, we can’t do better than this?”

Shana Segat responded: “You got caught engaging in potentially threatening behavior. Verbally accosted, you might have deserved, dear. Be a better person.”

Several people described Waggoner’s behavior as “creepy.”

Ashley Showalter wrote: “What in the world! 🤯🤯🤯 that is awful. In no way is this ok. That is seriously creepy.”

In another comment, Josh Zimbelman described an encounter at his house in Hutchinson.

“Paul and another gentlemen stopped at my house, put a sign in my yard, took pictures and videos, then took the sign out of my yard,” Zimbelman wrote. “Super weird incident.”

Waggoner, of Hutchinson, has served two terms in the House. His past comments about women have been the subject of controversy.

In April 2019, the Hutchinson News reported Waggoner used the derogatory term “harpies” to refer to women while considering an invitation to speak at meetings of the Hutchinson chapter of Women for Kansas.

Earlier this year, Kansas Reflector reported on Waggoner’s comments on the House floor about how men earn higher wages than women because they work harder.

Strand has criticized Waggoner for not participating in public debates during this election cycle, including those organized by the local Chamber of Commerce and Republican state Sen. Mark Steffen.

“Garth is unable to be an ‘effective leader’ for the people of the 104th because he doesn’t see the world as they do,” Waggoner wrote in a Sunday post from his campaign’s Facebook page. “He could only serve if he was consistently deceptive about his real opinions.”

Strand said he thinks Waggoner’s behavior with Neill on Saturday will have an effect on Tuesday’s vote.

“It’s a sign of his character and his level of leadership that he provides,” Strand said. “People have to make a decision about that.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Text messages direct Kansas voters to wrong polling location

TOPEKA — Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab warned voters Monday not to be fooled by text messages directing them to the wrong polling location.

Schwab and voter advocates stressed the need to verify polling location with state and local officials. Voters can find their polling location through the Secretary of State website.

The unsolicited text messages, which arrived Sunday night and appeared to target Democrats and unaffiliated voters, mirror similar misinformation campaigns in other states.

“Voters should be on high alert for these messages,” Schwab said. “The Secretary of State’s Office does not use third parties to contact voters or share election information on our behalf. State and local election officials are the trusted sources for election information, and I encourage voters to contact our office or their county election office for assistance.”

Numerous images shared with Kansas Reflector and on social media show registered voters received text messages that identified their home address, which was correct, and the address of their supposed voting location, which was incorrect. The text was accompanied by an image of the incorrect polling location.

The messages claim to be from Mari with an organization called Voting Futures. A variant identified Black Voters Matter as the source. It wasn’t immediately clear who really sent the texts.

“These texts are designed to spread false information and create confusion for registered voters,” said Deann Mitchell, chairwoman of the Johnson County Democrats. “Any attempts to disenfranchise voters is an attack on the election process.”

Earlier this month, KGW-TV and other news outlets reported on a similar text message campaign in Oregon. There, the texts were sent by “Myra” from Voting Futures, with a variant from Voto Latino. KSG-TV identified Movement Labs as the sender of the Oregon texts.

Movement Labs, which claims on its website to “leverage technology and our army of passionate, remote volunteers to build power for progressives and marginalized communities,” didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment for this story.

A text message sent Tuesday afternoon appeared to be from Movement Labs and said the organization was “deeply sorry for any confusion we caused.” The new message directed voters to the Secretary of State website to find accurate information about their polling place.

Voto Latino in a statement Monday said it sent unintentionally confusing text messages to voters in Kansas, New Jersey, Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia to encourage them to vote, and that it sent corrected follow-up text messages.

Esmie Tseng, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said the ACLU election hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), had fielded calls about the misleading text messages.

Tseng said it was concerning that certain voters appeared to be targeted over others. The text messages were a good reminder that voters should go to trusted sources for information about how to vote.

“It’s already hard enough for voters to figure out how they want to vote according to their values and beliefs and with the different amendments and candidates,” Tseng said. “Making it harder to vote this way is just a little bit much, and I’d hate for a voter to go somewhere and it’s the wrong place.”

Election Day is Nov. 8. In-person early voting is available at local election offices.

Nov. 1 is the deadline to apply for an advanced mail ballot, which has to be postmarked by Nov. 8 and delivered to the county election office by Nov. 11.

The deadline to register to vote in the general election was Oct. 18.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.