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Kansas Wonders Why Legislature Might Push Back New Amusement Park Regulations

Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander, Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, addresses Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brig. Gen. Wolf-Jürgen Stahl, Train Advise Assist Command - North commander, during a visit to Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, on March 20, 2018. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

A child’s death at a Kansas amusement park, the second such fatality in less than a year, has ironically delayed legislative debate on new rules to make the facilities safer.

The Kansas House heard an emotional plea from one of their own to support a measure on inspection requirements for amusement park rides in the state last March.

“This is a good measure,” Rep. Scott Schwab (R) said. “And for those of you who have consternation with the expansion of government, sometimes you just need some because even John Adams expanded government when he created the U.S. Navy.”

“I love every one of you and thank you for everything you’ve done for our family,” Schwab said. “But this bill is really not about Caleb. It’s for the next kid who goes someplace in Kansas for a fun weekend.”

It was the death of Schwab’s son, 10-year-old Caleb, on a 17-story water slide at the Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City in August that sparked a drive in the Kansas Legislature to tighten inspection requirements for amusement park rides in the state.

Schwab spoke on the House floor just before his colleagues overwhelmingly approved the legislation.

The new law includes new requirements for equipment inspections as well as new rules for the reporting of injuries suffered on amusement park rides.

Rep. John Barker (R) told the Associated Press the legislation corrected what he described as some of the weakest amusement park regulations in the nation.

“This is not a perfect bill, but it’s about as good as we can get it,” Barker said.

Gov. Sam Brownback wasted no time in signing the legislation.

As often happens with laws, the legislature got the bill back and tweaked some of the requirements in the legislation. For instance, lawmakers added a new rule that mandates amusement park operators submit to qualified, outside inspection.

Until the new law goes into effect, park operators only have to self-inspect the rides.

That change didn’t spark much controversy, but another did. The House Federal and State Affairs Committee voted to push back the start date from July 1, 2017, to July 2018.

Rep. Barker, who chairs the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, told AP the Kansas Department of Labor asked for the delay because some small carnival operators were worried they wouldn’t be able to comply with the new rules by July 1 and their summer seasons would be lost.

A House debate over the idea of delaying the bill’s implementation for a year was set to begin the same day the parents of 15-month-old Pressley Bartonek said their daughter had died of injuries suffered at a carnival.

The Wichita Eagle reported the girl was swinging back and forth on a metal handrail outside one of the rides at a local carnival when she was electrocuted by a live wire.

A Westar Energy investigator said he found the wire contained 290 volts of electricity.

Pressley died May 15, three days after the accident.

Although House Majority Leader Don Hineman (R) told AP that “we just decided to wait for a  different day,” Minority Leader Jim Ward (D) said debating the legislation on the day of the child’s death “might have been in poor taste.”

However, delaying the debate, the Kansas City Star editorialized, was unconscionable.

The Star’s editorial board pointed out that the new rules, if they had already been in effect, would have probably saved the life of Pressley Bartonek. And the argument that carnival operators might have their summers ruined, the Kansas City Star wrote, fails on two counts.

First, the people who run amusement parks must have read the papers and known the new rules were coming. Second, it would be far better to spoil one summer for an amusement park operator than it would be to wreck the life of a family that loses a child to an accident caused by faulty equipment.

“Stop now. Any foot-dragging in implementing the rules would unacceptably endanger thousands of Kansans this summer,” the Kansas City Star opined.

“There may be other motives at work here. Delaying implementation of the law would give so-called home-owned carnivals more than 12 months to push for repeal of the statute or substantial changes to the new rules,” the editorial added.

In fact, Hineman suggested to the Star that giving carnival operators a year to adjust would give everyone a chance to determine if the new rules were “workable.”

That seemed ludicrous to the Star.

“A toddler in Wichita is dead, killed at a carnival,” the paper said. “We don’t want to type those words again.”