Things will look much different at the Statehouse when the Kansas Legislature convenes for its 2021 session.
“The floor, the House chambers will be off limits to outsiders. About half of the seats have been removed and so the galleries will be open for all legislators to spread out throughout the building so when we do have to vote, we will be at least six feet apart,” said 51st District Rep. Ron Highland (R-Wamego).
Leadership in both the House and Senate are working to accommodate the 165 voting member legislature. While perhaps no measure will be 100 percent effective in thwarting off any COVID-19 infections, Highland says the legislative body is doing the best it can to operate safely and efficiently.
As for how committee hearings will be conducted, Highland says that is something leadership is still trying to resolve. The Kansas Constitution requires legislators to meet in Topeka.
“We also have to be in person to vote in the same location, or it will not be constitutional and be subject to lawsuits. We have to be careful and do what we have to do to get the state’s business done,” he said.
Also unresolved is access of the press to legislative hearings and meetings. Highland says the legislature may rotate a single member of the media daily to those meetings and then have them share information with other media outlets.
Highland, who joined In Focus this week as part of KMAN’s ongoing legislative preview, says he learned about a week ago what his committee assignments will be for 2021.
“They’ve asked me to chair the new water committee to try to streamline the entire water system across the state and they’ve given me two years to do that,” he said.
Highland also retains his membership on both the commerce and tax committees. Kansas currently has 16 different state offices involved with water when it comes to policy, in addition to five federal agencies. Highland says early on, a primary part of the committee’s work will be educational in nature, but adds they’ll have a lot they’ll oversee.
“Everything is going to be on the table. There are lawsuits with Nebraska over water in the Republican River. Then we’re looking at the Big Blue where the dams are being filled in with silt. It will be a long process, but an interesting one,” he said.
Another new committee formed this year will focus on redistricting political boundaries, something required by the state constitution to be completed in the second year following the U.S. Census.
For Highland, it could mean a complete reshaping of his district, which spans five counties including southeastern Riley and southern Pottawatomie counties, stretching from just north of the Tuttle Creek dam to the north to just north of Emporia to the south. The district also encompasses Rossville in southwestern Shawnee County.
“The reason my district is shaped the way it is, is because the last time around the Senate and House could not agree. It’s like any other bill, it has to be passed by both chambers then go on to the governor for signature. It didn’t make it, so it was turned over to the courts, who hired a computer guy, who drew the lines based on population,” he said.
Highland says he’s not sure how his district might look once the process is completed but says he will make his suggestions. He estimates that by the next redistricting phase in 2030, the Hwy 24 corridor between Manhattan and Wamego, may be reshaped into its own political district altogether, based on expected rises in population over the next decade.