Kansas refuses to increase Legislature’s power over agencies

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas voters have narrowly rejected a proposal to curb the power of the governor and other officials to regulate businesses and set environmental and public health rules, rebuking the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature again after affirming abortion rights this summer.

The Associated Press called the election Tuesday against a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have made it easier for lawmakers to overturn regulations written by state agencies and boards under the control of the governor and others in the executive branch. The call came a week after Election Day and after Monday’s deadline for mail-in ballots to reach county elections offices.

Opponents of the measure said its defeat showed that many voters remained wary of the Legislature after a statewide vote Aug. 2 decisively rejecting a proposed amendment on abortion pushed by Republican lawmakers. That measure would have said the Kansas Constitution doesn’t grant the right to abortion, which would have allowed the Legislature to greatly restrict or ban it.

“That caused people to question what else the Legislature was up to by way of attempting to increase the Legislature’s power,” said Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael, of Wichita.

At issue in the latest vote were rules as varied as how elk hunting permits are distributed and which shots are required for children attending schools.

The Legislature has a joint committee that reviews regulations, but if lawmakers object to one, their most effective tactic is to object loudly and push the agency to back off. They also can pass a bill overturning the rule, but the governor can veto it.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have allowed lawmakers to suspend or revoke regulations with a simple majority vote in both chambers, with no option for the governor to veto such moves. Business groups and advocates of smaller government viewed the measure as reining in unelected bureaucrats.

“Kansans will instead continue to bear the burden of the high costs of regulation and an inefficient regulatory system,” said Elizabeth Patton, state director for Americans for Prosperity, a free-market, small-government group backed by Charles Koch, the billionaire Koch Industries CEO and chairman.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly opposed the measure, saying it would “create chaos” across the state, and her spokesperson Cassie Nichols said Tuesday that it would have “kept Kansans from receiving help efficiently.”

But Patton said Kelly’s opposition showed that she has no interest in holding government agencies accountable.

In most states, legislators review agencies’ regulations, but their power to block or repeal them varies widely. Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, New Jersey and Nevada have state constitutional provisions that allow their legislatures to invalidate regulations.

Kansas law used to give the state’s Legislature the power to revoke or rewrite agencies’ rules, but in 1984, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the practice violated the state constitution’s separation of powers.

“The whole ballot issue was misunderstood,” said state Rep. Barbara Wasinger, a Republican from western Kansas who has led the rules committee. “We should have done a better job of explaining it.”

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