Capitol Update: Rep. Ousley sees 2021 session as ‘disappointing on many fronts’

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, seen here in a file photo from 2019, says that he's frustrated by what he sees as misappropriation of his work to create an "Office of the Child Advocate."

Each week, we provide Shawnee Mission area legislators the opportunity to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Sen. Kellie Warren, Rep. Jarrod Ousley and Rep. Owen Donohoe are scheduled to send updates this week.

Below is the submission from Democratic Rep. Jarrod Ousley, who represents District 24, which covers Merriam and parts of Mission and Overland Park.

This session has been disappointing on many fronts. From attacks to sweep federal COVID relief dollars from local school districts to pay for the state’s public education funding responsibilities, bills to prevent transgender students from participating in the team building and physical activity of sports, clearing the way to strip constitutional protections for women to access health care, and the failure to expand Medicaid expansion yet again, the danger of the lopsided power structure in the Kansas Legislature has perhaps never been more apparent.

For a reminder, there are only 39 Democrats in the Kansas House, out of 125 seats, and only 11 Democrats in the Senate, out of 40. To sustain a veto in the House we need three Republicans to break with their party in the House, and in the Senate there needs to be five to block a 2/3 majority threshold. While many of the issues important to Kansas are on the line, it is a nerve-wracking time of the year, as we wait to see which of the measures vetoed by the Governor will weigh heavy enough on Republicans for them to break ranks with their caucus to sustain her vetoes. We need to be prepared for the election cycle in 2022 to re-double our efforts to break the super-majority strangle holds in both chambers.

Out of the many disappointments facing us due to far-right extremist leadership, what hits closest to home with regards to my work is the appropriation of the title of “Office of the Child Advocate” by Republican leadership in the Senate. For four years, I worked to create an Office of the Child Advocate, partnering with advocacy organizations such as Kansas Appleseed, Foster parents, and those who have lost children to perhaps circumstances that could have been prevented if our system had a mechanism in place to serve and protect children in our State.

Working with advocates, judges, experts in foster care, and national organizations of Child Advocates, we drafted House Bill 2345, which was carefully crafted to provide language already incorporated in Kansas statutory and regulatory system for Children in Need of Care (CINC) and Juvenile Offenders (JO). It clearly defined the Office, its mission and scope, to advocate for children in our system, and carefully detailed a distribution of power and oversight throughout the Kansas Government so as to not place power with one entity so as to prevent abuse of power and to keep the focus on the kids. This bill had bi-partisan sponsorship from multiple legislators on both sides of the aisle, conservative, moderate, and Democratic, and passed out of the House’s Children and Seniors Committee unanimously. Despite this, House leadership killed the bill, never allowing it to come above the line for a vote.

The Senate then introduced their own bill, SB 301, also titled the Office of the Child Advocate. But the only similarity between the two offices was the name. Nothing in the Senate bill was crafted or geared to assisting children. Instead, it was designed as a power grab for use by the Attorney General, with sweeping subpoena and investigatory power, with no oversight, and without a defined scope or goals detailing that the work done by the Office should be for the benefit of Kansas children. It more closely resembled an Inspector General Office, but without oversight by any other entity, it would have been ripe for abuse of power, and placed vulnerable families and children at risk of harassment and at the mercy of ideologues should they hold power in the Attorney General’s seat.

I opposed the Senate’s bill testifying against it in the Senate committee, with Sen. Corson speaking against it as well, and while the Senate’s version passed their body, the bill did not come to the floor of the house for a vote, and when the House Children and Seniors Committee conferenced with our counterpoints in the Senate, neither the House’s version or the Senate’s version came out of committee.

While this session has been difficult, it is better to have come away with a chance to negotiate again next session with the House’s Office of the Child Advocate bill, then it would have been to have a poorly created Office authorized this year.

The House Children and Seniors Committee will continue to work in a bi-partisan manner to serve the needs of at risk Kansas kids, and to create solutions that will work to serve children first.

As always, it is my privilege to serve my constituents in House District 24. I can be reached at jarrod.ousley@house.ks.gov at (785) 296-7366 and on Facebook here.