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Legislators agree on "gloomy" atmosphere in the Statehouse at Feb. Legislative Coffee event

Meghan Flynn
Garden City Telegram
Area legislators participate in the February virtual legislative coffee by the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce on Saturday.

Kansas legislators gave updates on their legislative session so far at the February Legislative Coffee hosted by the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce Saturday.

Legislatures all agreed that the atmosphere at the Statehouse in Topeka is "gloomy."

Senator John Doll, R-Garden City, said it was the lack of constituents that really hit him, as there are few people at the capitol.

"Normally by this time I've seen a hundred of my constituents and I would have seen protests," he said.

Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City,  agrees that the atmosphere is grim. He said the legislative session this year is different from prior years and feels depressing.

"The absence of human contact, these virtual committee meetings that we have, we don't have any receptions," he said. "The absence of our constituents and their ability to come into the Statehouse to meet with us is really sad. Just getting an email or perhaps a phone call really doesn't work."

Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, believes the virtual aspect of the session is having an impact on the legislative process. 

"You go down the halls of the capitol and they're almost empty, we're not on the floor every day, we're on the floor voting once or twice a week," he said. "Committee rooms usually have no more than two or three people occupying them during committee meetings, there's just not an opportunity for conversations, and that's created a very different environment compared to what we've all been used to."

It's having an impact because legislating is a relationship business, Jennings said.

"It's the ability to create relationships, have conversations, gain information, influence where you can, but we really don't see each other much," he said.

While there is a lot of virtual work things are getting done.

Jennings said so far 405 bills have been introduced in the Kansas House of Representatives and 48 have crossed the floor and made their way to the Senate.

Jennings chairs the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. He said there has been an influx of bills from that committee because of the work of the Criminal Justice Reform Commission over the last two years along with the Kansas Judicial Council and the Kansas Sentencing Commission.

"There have been lots and lots of discussions, lots and lots of bills, we're moving forward with that," he said. "I'm hopeful that, and some of these initiatives have made it through."

Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, spoke on highways and how one of the good things that happened as a result of the COVID-19 funding package passed by the federal government at the end of December is about $95 million is coming to Kansas for highways.

"$10 million of it roughly is going to go to Sedgewick County and Johnson County, the other $85 million will come to the Department of Transportation," he said. "They estimated that the funding shortage that we had as a result of the loss of fuel tax, people were driving less, was about $35 million to $40 million. So the difference between that $85 million and that $35-40 million is going to be able to help us continue some of the maintenance we need and some of the new projects."