Gov. Laura Kelly frightens Kansas Republicans. A new amendment push exposes their desperation.

February 17, 2022 3:33 am

GOP leaders see Gov. Laura Kelly as a threat because she undermines the story that Kansas archconservatives want to believe, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Laura Kelly scares and infuriates Kansas Republican legislators so much they want to amend the constitution to protect them from her dastardly ways.

That’s the message of an absurd proposal heard Wednesday in the House of Representatives. If approved by both chambers, and voters this fall, it would let legislators set and reject rules for agencies overseen by the governor. GOP leaders want to strip the governor of power because she’s a Democrat. Sure, that might seem like an breathtakingly irresponsible overreach, but 77 Republicans voted for the amendment on their first go-round.

Forget about the legislative and executive branches.

Say hello to one plus-sized legislative branch.

Republicans deny they’re doing any such thing, of course. Leaders fretted about overreach by government bureaucrats and the need for a legislative check. See, nothing to do with scarily popular Laura Kelly at all! It’s a total coincidence that she runs the departments that happen to contain all those government bureaucrats.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, left, says in a rebuttal to Gov. Laura Kelly’s annual State of the State speech the GOP would seek to cut the sales tax rate, build a Rainy Day Fund and invest in the state’s pension system. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman “asked House Republicans if they want ‘these folks’ to make decisions like closing churches, shutting down businesses and giving overseas fraudsters money from the unemployment fund, or allow the Legislature to have a final say,” wrote Kansas Reflector’s Noah Taborda and Sherman Smith.

“It doesn’t matter who the governor is,” Ryckman said. “Bureaucrats have been here longer than us. They’ll stay here longer than us.”

But here’s the catch: As pointed out by Taborda and Smith, the amendment wouldn’t apply to any of Ryckman’s examples. He was using continued outrage over COVID-19 restrictions (which were never that restrictive in Kansas anyway) to wrest power from a political rival.

“It doesn’t make any difference what the governor is,” claimed House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins. “Those bureaucrats stay year in and year out, and they literally change the course of any law they want.”

Except that the state House and Senate had every opportunity to pass such a constitutional amendment from 2011 to 2018, when Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer occupied the governor’s office. For some reason that I just can’t put my finger on, they didn’t do so. And what’s this? Ryckman admitted the idea to pass the amendment came from Kelly’s opponent in the fall governor’s race — state Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Still, the amendment totally doesn’t have anything to do with who’s governor. That surely means lawmakers supported Rep. John Carmichael’s proposal to delay a public vote until after the gubernatorial election.

Oh, wait. They didn’t do that? How curious.

Let’s speak frankly for a moment, just between us. GOP leaders see Kelly as a threat because she undermines the story that archconservatives want to believe. They tell themselves that the vast majority of Kansans believe exactly as they do. They tell themselves that everyone opposes expanding Medicaid or legalizing medical marijuana, that everyone supports weakening public education and privatizing state services.

None of those things is popular. Those running the Legislature don’t represent most Kansans. The state’s Democratic governor serves as a constant, irritating reminder of that truth. Neither Ryckman nor Hawkins has won a statewide election.

Kelly has.

Senate President Ty Masterson speaks on Feb. 16, 2022 (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Let’s not forget that three years ago, Republicans grumbled about this very subject, on the record, to the Associated Press’ reporter in Topeka, John Hanna. Kelly’s election somehow didn’t count, even though Republicans made the collective decision to nominate Kris “Damaged Goods” Kobach. You can hear the irritation seep through their words even now.

“It’s the legislative elections that are the more indicative of what is going on in the state,” current Senate President Ty Masterson told Hanna back then. He called Kelly’s election “a tragic collision of timing.”

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for her governorship,” then-Senate President Susan Wagle said.

“I don’t see this as an endorsement of the more liberal policies that Gov. Kelly is suggesting,” said former U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, who lost in 2018 to Sharice Davids.

One pandemic later, two of those three speakers don’t hold political office. Kelly remains governor. This amendment shows that Republican leaders can’t let go of the humiliation and fear instilled by a low-key, pragmatic, moderate Democrat. If Schmidt can’t stop her, they hope this amendment can.

They were right to be worried then. They’re right to be worried now. The governor has run circles around them politically, and while not the clear favorite in November, she’s certainly competitive. More people approve of her now than voted for her in 2018.

The least Republicans could do is be honest about their intent.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.