GOP officials launch new effort to limit Kansas governor’s power

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt discusses a proposal that he's pushing with other Republicans to amend the state constitution to give the Legislature the power to overturn state agencies' administrative regulations, at a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Behind him are Senate President Ty Masterson, left, R-Andover, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., right, R-Olathe. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Story updated at 6:04 p.m. Tuesday:

Topeka — Top Kansas Republicans launched a new effort Tuesday to curb Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s power after months of criticizing her handling of the coronavirus pandemic and problems with the state’s unemployment system.

GOP Attorney General Derek Schmidt and top Republican lawmakers outlined a proposal that would amend the state constitution to restore the GOP-controlled Legislature’s power to revoke regulations issued by state agencies. A state law once gave lawmakers that power, but the Kansas Supreme Court struck it down in 1984, declaring that it overstepped the Legislature’s authority under the state constitution.

The proposal is the latest in a series of measures aimed at curbing the governor’s power, as Republicans also try to build a case against Kelly’s reelection in 2022, with Schmidt widely considered a potential candidate for governor. GOP lawmakers have intensified their criticism of Kelly in recent weeks over what they view as the state’s flawed distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and over the Department of Labor’s struggle to deliver benefits to jobless workers and combat fraudulent unemployment claims.

“Kansans are tired of excuses, and that’s all we’re getting,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said after a Statehouse news conference unveiling the latest proposal. “Oversight seems to be the solution.”

Other Democratic governors, particularly in North Carolina and Wisconsin, also have faced curbs on their power by Republican legislatures. Kelly was forced last year to accept local control over pandemic restrictions to keep a state of emergency in place.

“The pandemic has really, I think, ratcheted up these party warfare tensions over government power in your divided-government states like Kansas,” said University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller.

A Kansas House committee hopes to vote Thursday on a bill that would give lawmakers more control over upgrades of the state Department of Labor’s computer system. Lawmakers also are pursuing a proposal to create an office to monitor the state’s foster care system and report to them, and another proposal would strip the governor of the power to fill vacancies in the state treasurer’s and insurance commissioner’s offices.

The proposal about state agency regulations would go on the ballot for voters’ potential approval in November 2022 if both chambers approve it by two-thirds majorities. Republicans have supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

“This is a complete power grab and a complete overreach,” said Democratic state Rep. Jason Probst, of Hutchinson.

Kelly spokesperson Sam Coleman said the new proposal “is further proof that Republican leaders have no interest in doing the serious work” of helping Kansas recover from the pandemic.

“They are only fixated on trying to stop the governor from doing her job,” he said in an email to The Associated Press.

During the GOP’s news conference, Schmidt declined to point out specific administrative rules that he or others deemed excessive. Instead, he said, the issue was restoring elected legislators’ ability to overturn the actions of unelected state agency officials and reining in an “ever-growing administrative state.”

While state laws dictate much of what state agencies are allowed to do in regulating businesses and others, legislators often leave it to them to flesh out the details with administrative rules. The Legislature has a joint committee that reviews agency regulations — and it’s sometimes critical — but overturning rules requires enacting a law, with the governor’s consent.

Schmidt said the Kansas proposal was similar to provisions in several other state constitutions, including New Jersey’s.

“I think our system has gotten somewhat out of whack,” he said.

Schmidt acknowledged that the pandemic has focused officials on the governor’s power, leading them to “discover” again the issue of lawmakers not being able to veto agencies’ rules.

“Obviously, we’re all focused on, you know, issues of oversight in perhaps a manner we weren’t a year and a half ago because of the extraordinary use of executive power,” Schmidt said.

The attorney general rejected a suggestion that Tuesday’s news conference could be viewed as an informal kickoff to a campaign for governor. Asked whether he was running, he said, “I didn’t say that.”

Schmidt noted that the measure, if added to the state constitution, would allow the Legislature to reject regulations from his office.

“This is simply resetting that balance and giving voice to the regulated, through their elected representatives,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.


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