Opinion

Kansas legislators block good policy every session. It’s time to give voters a powerful new voice.

November 28, 2022 3:33 am
Voters fill out ballots

Voters fill out advanced ballots Oct. 25, 2022, at the Shawnee County Election Office in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

If Kansans could vote today on the issues, they would expand Medicaid, legalize marijuana and control access to deadly weapons. Already this year, they showed up at the polls in overwhelming numbers to support abortion rights.

But lawmakers at the Statehouse have opposed or blocked these measures in the past, and the upcoming legislative session offers little hope that they will suddenly begin implementing the policies their constituents want. They have gerrymandered and exploited redistricting across the state to prevent such outcomes. Powerful lobbies such as the Kansas Chamber, Kansans for Life and other right-wing interests set the agenda.

The time has come to allow Kansans to vote on these measures directly. As the abortion referendum over the summer showed, everyday folks are perfectly capable of articulating what they want.

Or as ballot-initiative supporter and former Kansas Gov. Joan Finney told the Legislature on Jan. 22, 1991: “If there is to be a tenor, a tone, a trademark of the Finney administration, it will be found in a return to the fundamental notion that, in America, government is of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Three decades on, and with another session on the way, we should listen.

 

Podcast guests appear via video conference on laptop screen
Political scientists from Kansas universities discuss findings of the 2022 Kansas Speaks survey. The survey found that Kansans are eager to broaden gun control laws by blocking sales to violent offenders. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Polling insights

The latest example of the gap between the government Kansans want and what they get can be seen in the latest Kansas Speaks poll from Fort Hays State University. Released just last month, the poll offers a wide array of questions about residents’ lives and opinions about the Sunflower State. But on the issues mentioned above, folks have strong and easy-to-comprehend opinions.

Expanding Medicaid was supported by 71.9% of those polled.

Six gun control measures were supported by more than 70% of those polled. More than half wanted to ban assault weapons.

On abortion, 70.4% of those polled trusted women over politicians to make their own health care choices.

Earlier polling by Fort Hays showed that two-thirds of respondents supported legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use.

None of this should be a surprise. The state’s voters have elected Democrat Laura Kelly to two terms as governor, following predecessors such as Kathleen Sebelius. They rejected legislators’ attempt to gain a veto over executive branch regulations. When Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax “experiment” bankrupted the state, they sent moderate Republicans and Democrats to Topeka for cleanup duty.

And no one should forget the Aug. 2 abortion vote, which ultraconservatives have furiously explained away as anything other than a sweeping rejection of their entire ideological project.

 

Signs for and against the state constitutional amendment became a common sight throughout Kansas over summer. Now that the vote is over, we can take a step back. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Signs for and against the state constitutional amendment became a common sight throughout Kansas over summer. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Mechanical problems

We know what Kansans want. But what ways do we have to achieve it?

Right now, folks across the state have a single way to directly weigh in on policy. They can vote on approving or rejecting an amendment to the state constitution. That’s it.

Putting an amendment on the ballot takes a two-thirds vote from the state House of Representatives and Senate. That’s a high bar to clear, although it has successfully established women’s suffrage and the state lottery system. Most amendments proposed at the Statehouse don’t make it to the ballot, and the only reason this summer’s abortion vote did was that anti-choice advocates misunderstood the public.

According to an invaluable breakdown from Ballotpedia, 49 of 50 states allow for this form of direct democracy, limited though it may be.

Other forms have spread to dozens of states. But not to Kansas. For example, 24 states allow voters to have their say on legislatively referred statutes. Twenty-one states allow voters themselves to initiate the statute, while 18 allow them to initiate constitutional amendments.

When it comes to amendments and statutes, voters in 27 states have more say than Kansans. More than half the country.

That majority includes all four states that border us. Of those, only Nebraska hasn’t moved toward marijuana legalization. All have expanded Medicaid.

We’re caught in a paradox, however. Changing this process would require passing a constitutional amendment. As just noted, that requires both the House and Senate voting by a two-thirds margin to send that ballot measure to Kansans. Why would legislators voluntarily give up their power, especially when they’ve spent the better part of the last decade thwarting their own constituents?

 

Kris Kobach stands outside the Kansas GOP watch party on Election Day. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kris Kobach stands outside the Kansas GOP watch party on Election Day. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Leadership needed

Kansans need their elected officials to speak up for them.

Both Democrats and Republicans have done so in the past. Finney made ballot initiatives a key part of her successful gubernatorial run in 1990. In that January 1991 address to the Legislature, she laid out a far-reaching proposal for bringing democracy back to the people.

“As governor, I reaffirm my commitment to this ideal by asking for your immediate consideration and approval of three constitutional amendments pertaining to public initiative and referendum,” she said. “The first authorizes Kansas voters to initiate, by petition, amendments to the state constitution. The second authorizes initiation of state laws by the electorate. And the third authorizes referendum, allowing the Legislature to refer legislation to the voters for their approval or rejection.”

Those proposed amendments didn’t make it out of the Legislature. The harp-playing Finney decided against running for reelection, and Republican Bill Graves took office in 1995.

Kris Kobach made a similar pitch back in 2010. He was the incoming secretary of state then, rather than the incoming attorney general, which he is now.

Kobach had actually written a book on the subject, “The Referendum: Direct Democracy in Switzerland.” But even his conservative bona fides weren’t enough to sway the Kansas Legislature, whose leaders at the time were concerned about unintended consequences. Despite that, they managed to pass the Brownback tax cuts. Go figure.

Both Finney and Kobach saw wider use of ballot initiatives as a way to improve democracy in Kansas. If such different figures could find agreement over the space of 20 years, perhaps officials today could do the same.

 

Dave Trabert and Sen. Kellie Warren appear on Senate floor
Lobbyist Dave Trabert greets Sen. Kellie Warren on April 26, 2022, during his appearance as a guest on the Senate floor. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Serious drawbacks

I don’t want to give the impression that direct democracy would solve all Kansas’ problems. The drawbacks can be seen easily enough.

The general public doesn’t necessarily have the knowledge or experience to sort through complex issues and render a considered verdict. During times of reactionary fervor, majorities may decide to write discrimination against disfavored groups into law. This happened in Kansas back in 2005, when 70% of voters supported an amendment forbidding same-sex marriage.

From another direction, corporate interests could push for ballot initiatives and spend heavily in general elections to get their way. Dozens of amendments could crowd ballots on Election Day, contributing to confusion and government dysfunction. Here at Kansas Reflector, we heard often from voters confused about the two amendments on the ballot earlier this month. Imagine if there were a dozen.

Back in 2010, Kobach offered his own expertise as a defense: “There are many different types of initiative systems around the country,” he said. “I would try to make sure Kansas develops a system that is not abused by fringe groups and a system that works well.”

Pardon me if that doesn’t entirely reassure.

In its ideal form, representative democracy should provide a government that serves the public without requiring micromanagement. But anyone who has watched the Statehouse in recent years understands that the system not only prevents good policy from becoming law but often generates bad policy. The New York Times’ recent expose, showing how lobbyists took state lawmakers to the cleaners over sports betting, offers a compelling example.

Everyday Kansans might not get everything right. But they can do surely better than this.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting 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, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 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.

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