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The Kansas Legislature is asking voters to shift regulation powers from the governor to lawmakers

An oil well in a grassy field.
Brian Grimmett
/
Kansas News Service
An oil well in Sedgwick County.

The change could threaten state environmental regulations that business groups want thrown out.

TOPEKA, Kansas – Kansas lawmakers have sent a proposed constitutional amendment to voters limiting the power of the governor and state agencies.

The change would allow the Legislature to overturn long-standing rules that business lobbyists don’t like. 

In a session that dragged from late Wednesday into early Thursday, the Senate voted 27-12 to pass a resolution that would amend the Kansas Constitution to curtail the way career state employees or a governor’s administration could interpret state law into government regulations.

Instead, if approved by voters, that power would shift to the Legislature and a simple majority vote in both the Kansas House and Senate.

Conservative Republicans backing the amendment argue it would move decision-making away from bureaucrats and put more authority in the hands of lawmakers accountable to ordinary Kansans. Critics say the change would strip a governor of key powers to carry out what they’re doing on behalf of voters and undercut the authority of state agencies when they try to carry out the law.

The amendment will appear on the general election ballot in November when voters will also decide whether to re-elect Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

While debating the amendment, Republican Sen. Kellie Warren said the governor and state agencies can continue to make rules and regulations, but the Legislature will have more oversight of them.

“This constitutional amendment restores the checks and balances to the Legislature,” Warren said. “That’s where the policy-making belongs.”

Democratic senators opposed the amendment. Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes said it is not needed. She said the Legislature already has the power to create laws that the executive branch must follow.

The Kansas House approved the resolution in February. Democratic lawmakers opposed the proposal there too.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita, said he feared the amendment would disrupt the state’s balance of power. He said lawmakers could then use their new-found influence to invalidate rules and regulations that protect Kansans — such as environmental rules that business groups oppose.

The change could threaten state environmental regulations for clean air and water. Carmichael said industry groups like hog farmers have opposed them as unnecessary and burdensome to business.

With additional legislative oversight, those industry groups could appeal to lawmakers to ax those regulations without the blessing of the governor or a state agency.

Carmichael also said he believed the amendment largely reflects Republicans’ desire to undercut the Democratic governor and that they wouldn’t have pushed it through during a Republican administration.

“We need to have balance in our government so that there is a give-and-take, no matter if there’s a Republican governor or a Democratic governor,” he said. “This constitutional amendment turns that balance on its head.”

But Republican Rep. Dan Hawkins of Wichita argued on the House floor that the change to the constitution was not meant to attack the governor. Instead, he said it would keep the actions of career government workers in state agencies in check.

He said the “bureaucrats” of Topeka make rules and regulations that go against the Legislature’s wishes.

“It allows us to enshrine in our constitution that the Legislature is the body that makes the law, not bureaucrats,” Hawkins said. “That’s really what it’s about. It’s not about a governor.”

The rules and regulations proposal is one of several constitutional amendments lawmakers are considering this year, including the already-approved ballot question that would declare that the state constitution doesn’t promise access to abortion.

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As a Kansas political reporter, I want to inform our audience about statewide government and elected officials so they can make educated decisions at the ballot box. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning those lawmakers and candidates for office about those changes and what they plan for the future of the state. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard.
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