Kansas Republicans want to thwart any governor’s power. That’s an attack on democracy

·3 min read
John Hanna/AP

Hey Kansans: It’s time to vote no again — at least if you care about democracy in the state.

When you go to the polls in November, you’ll be asked to vote on two more amendments to the state constitution. Unlike the August referendum on the “Value Them Both” abortion amendment, there aren’t millions of dollars being poured into these measures by groups and donors from outside the state, no endless blitz of TV ads. They’ll be easy to overlook.

That would be a mistake.

One of the proposed amendments involves the election and removal of county sheriffs. The other — well, the other amendment is aimed squarely at politically neutering Gov. Laura Kelly if she wins reelection this fall.

It’s the GOP’s backup plan in case they can’t stop Kelly at the polls: They’ll disempower her instead.

Let’s start with an explanation. The new amendment would “allow the Legislature to establish procedures to revoke or suspend rules and regulations that are adopted by state executive branch agencies,” according to the statement that accompanies the measure on the ballot.

Put in less bureaucratic language, it would let the Kansas Legislature — controlled by the GOP for now and the foreseeable future — overturn a governor’s policies by a simple majority vote in both the state House and Senate.

It’s a profoundly undemocratic measure.

Wait. Why? Wouldn’t it be more democratic to let 165 lawmakers have up-or-down votes on policies affecting the entire state instead of letting one person — the governor — have final say?

Not really.

The measure is plainly aimed at thwarting the will of Kansas voters, at least if their will is to reelect Kelly. Republicans in this state are used to ruling the roost, so to speak, which means that the election of a Democratic governor goes against their sense of the natural order of things — never mind that this solidly red state has routinely sent Democrats to Cedar Crest over the last few decades: Robert Docking, John Carlin, Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius all preceded Kelly in office. And those voters just might do it again. A new poll shows Kelly clinging to a narrow lead over her GOP challenger, Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

So if Kelly does win and the amendment passes, Republicans in the Legislature will almost certainly use their new power to sideline her from the real business of governing, no matter what voters intended by her reelection. But those lawmakers probably won’t use that authority if Schmidt is victorious. Why would they? He’s on their side, right?

There’s also this: The governor’s office is inherently more democratic than the Legislature.

The governor is elected by all the voters in Kansas, after all, chosen by and theoretically responsive to just about everybody in the state. The Legislature, meanwhile, is a gerrymandered kludge with seats drawn up to protect Republican incumbents and elbow Democrats out of power, all of which means individual lawmakers are more likely to serve narrow ideological interests — and just the small subset of voters in their own districts — than to have the big picture in mind.

Which means the new amendment would shift even more power to those interests, and away from the one person in the process who serves the entire electorate.

This whole debate stems from the lockdown that Kelly — along with nearly every other governor in the country, Republican and Democratic — put into place during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The GOP has tried to turn the current gubernatorial election into a referendum of sorts on her actions, saying she badly hurt businesses and public school students across the state. Maybe it will work and Kansans will vote her out of office.

But maybe they won’t. In which case, the proposed constitutional amendment would give Kansas Republicans a second chance to get the last word. And yes, that would be extremely undemocratic.