Local legislators had the opportunity to speak to and hear from their constituents in a legislative dialogue put on by the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce Government Matters Committee and the League of Women Voters Saturday morning.
Rep. Eric Smith (76th District), Rep. Mark Schreiber (60th District) and Sen. Jeff Longbine (17th District) attended the event.
Each legislator was given the opportunity to give opening remarks in regard to the work they have done thus far this session.
Smith reported that he is currently serving on committees related to federal and state affairs, corrections and juvenile justice and agriculture. He explained that the corrections and juvenile justice committee is seeking to solve the problem of prison overcrowding and that COVID-19 has presented a unique opportunity to do so.
“[Fewer sentencings as a result of COVID-19 has] freed up about 1,200 beds at the state level, an odd thing to think about when we’re trying to look at how we’re going to manage the overcrowding situation in prisons,” Smith said. “Along comes COVID and manages it for us to a certain degree.”
Smith said there is a great deal of uncertainty in regard to what will happen once courts are fully operational again, and as a result, the committee is re-examining how the state deals with non-violent drug offenders.
“A lot of our policy that we’re seeing in corrections and juvenile justice is, how do we deal with what some refer to as non-violent drug crimes?” he said. “There’s division there in our committee on that idea and some of that legislation got hearings that won’t be moving out of our committee simply because there is a lot of distrust with how exactly that’s going to impact us overall. Is it going to help us or hurt us?”
Schreiber told the audience that he is serving as the vice-chair of the energy, utilities and telecommunications committee, as well as serving on the education and judiciary committees.
“Over the past two weeks, the tenor in [the energy, utilities and telecommunications committee] has changed quite a bit,” Schreiber said. “From the start of the year, we were talking more about electric rates and so forth. Within the last two weeks, we’re talking more about reliability and resiliency in the system.”
Schreiber said that COVID-19 has impeded individuals’ constitutional right to a speedy trial, the pace of which, he said, is not defined in the U.S. Constitution, but which the state of Kansas defines as 150 days for those who have been detained and 180 days for those who have not. The state has thousands of cases currently awaiting trial, he said, and that Lyon County alone has 62.
“What we’re trying to do is establish an extension for the waiving of the speedy trial but offering also prioritization criteria within the law that gives the court a little bit of guidance on how fast and which ones get to the front of the line, so to speak, because there has been a tremendous backlog,” he said.
Longbine gave a review of bills that have been passed in the Senate so far this term, including, most controversially, a bill regarding an amendment to the state Constitution related to abortion regulation.
“It did pass the House and the Senate, so now it will go to the voters of Kansas and allow them to decide who they want to regulate abortion,” Longbine said. “In the state, it’s a highly controversial issue. People are very passionate on both sides of the issue. It’s difficult to deal with and that’s why we needed to get it off of our plates so we could get on to other things.”
After opening statements, members of the public were given the opportunity to address the legislators directly.
Schreiber responded to a question regarding redundancy in the energy system, particularly after the rolling blackouts that took place across the Midwest over the past week.
“The system has proven reliable,” he said. “The situation the last two weeks has been — and I hate to use the word again because it’s been used for COVID and everything else — unprecedented. … Did systems fail? Yeah, they did. And there’s always that balance between reliability and cost. You can build double redundancy systems, but then you have people coming out to say, ‘I can’t even pay my electric or gas bill because of these redundant systems.’ There’s a balance there and it’s a constant struggle.”
Longbine answered a question regarding the unemployment fraud that has been impacting individuals statewide — including Longbine and Gov. Kelly — and has cost the state somewhere between $300 million and $700 million.
“That I think has been mostly rectified by a software change and a firewall addition a couple of weeks ago and that new firewall turned away 400,000 threats in the first day,” he said. “It has been astronomical. I believe that it’s probably coming from offshore somewhere, but it’s a horrid situation.”
Longbine said that those who have been victimized by the fraud can go to the Kansas Department of Labor website to report it and receive instructions on what to do next. Additionally, those who have received fraudulent 1099 forms can get those corrected using the same website.
In regard to fraud in the 2020 election, Longbine stated, “There was virtually zero election fraud in Kansas.” He also stated that the audit requirement of election results had turned up a “99.98 percent acceptance” rate.
Longbine then explained that due to the obstacles that occurred with the 2020 census, re-districting would be delayed and he did not expect to receive census numbers until May or June of this year. Nothing could be done until they had the numbers, he said.
In closing, Smith encouraged the public to be in contact with their legislators and make their voices heard. He also encouraged people to go to kansaslegislature.org to review the documents that each committee receives and even to watch the committees as they meet.
“If you’re a nerd and you enjoy a variety of subject matters, there is no better place than the legislature to get an education, at least at the surface level,” Smith said.
Longbine said he appreciated the opportunity to speak with local constituents and hear the opinions of everyone he represents.
“One of my mentors 11 years ago taught me, very early in my career, that issues are like pancakes,” he said. “You can’t make one thin enough that it doesn’t have two sides. And so we need to make sure that we’re getting both sides of the issue and I thank you for the opportunity to serve.”
Anyone who wants to watch a replay of the legislative dialogue can visit https://www.facebook.com/EAChamberOfCommerce to hear all of the discussion that took place.
The next legislative dialogue will take place in March, although a date has yet to be determined.