Payback? Project funds axed after Kansas lawmaker defies governor on abortion, trans rights
TOPEKA — Kansas’ Democratic governor vetoed state funding on Monday for a project long advocated by a Democratic lawmaker who broke ranks to override the governor’s vetoes and give Republicans crucial support for laws restricting abortion and rolling back transgender rights.
Apparently, Rep. Marvin Robinson’s decision had consequences.
Gov. Laura Kelly axed $250,000 in the next state budget for drafting a state plan to develop the Quindaro Ruins in Kansas City, Kansas, which Robinson represents. Quindaro was a short-lived town and a station on the Underground Railroad that helped enslaved people escape to Canada. A proposal to build a landfill there in the 1980s led to an investigation of the site and the discovery of multiple buildings’ foundations.
Robinson, who is Black, advocated for the site’s restoration and development as a national historic landmark for several decades before he won an open House seat last year. Democratic leaders called on him to resign after he voted to override Kelly’s veto of a measure banning transgender female athletes from girls’ and women’s sports, giving Republicans the supermajority they needed.
Robinson’s votes were also crucial to Republicans enacting two other new laws over Kelly vetoes amid a national push on culture war issues by GOP state lawmakers. One is a sweeping bathroom law that could also prevent transgender people from changing the gender markers on their driver’s licenses. The other will require abortion providers to tell patients that medication abortions can be stopped using a regimen that major medical groups see as ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Kelly told lawmakers in her veto message Monday that the Quindaro site is a “fundamental piece of Kansas history,” but noted that Republicans added the money to the budget during their final days in session this year. Kelly said the idea had not been vetted, and her veto will stand because lawmakers have adjourned for the year.
“Advocates should work through the proper channels to seek funding for this measure and ensure that it receives the recognition it deserves,” Kelly wrote in her message.
The $250,000 Kelly vetoed compares to roughly $24 billion in spending lawmakers approved in the next state budget.
Michael Austin, chair of the Kansas Black Republican Council, said Kelly had “callously” denied funds to an important project while offering “hollow rhetoric” to Black residents.
House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita, Republican, said in a statement that preserving the Quindaro site should be a bipartisan priority “excluded from the wrath of political punishments.”
State Rep. Patrick Penn, of Wichita, the Legislature’s only Black Republican member, told the House before it passed the budget measure that Robinson did not know that GOP lawmakers included funds for Quindaro. State Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Republican from central Kansas, told The Kansas City Star that he pursued the funding to give Robinson “a win in his first year” after fellow Democrats treated him poorly.
Robinson did not respond to emails seeking comment on Kelly’s veto, and the telephone number listed for him did not allow people to leave messages.
He voted 18 times this year to override Kelly vetoes of bills or budget items, starting with the measure on transgender athletes. The measure was a priority for GOP leaders, as was the abortion medication measure.
Robinson’s vote to block Kelly’s veto of the bathroom measure vexed fellow Democrats because the new law is broader than those in other states. It applies outside public schools, extending to prisons, jails, rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. Supporters argued they were protecting cisgender women’s and girls’ privacy, health and safety.
The new law recognizes only two sexes, male or female, and defines them based on reproductive anatomy at birth. Because of that, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican, said earlier this month that he believes it prevents transgender people from changing the gender markers on their driver’s licenses. A spokesperson for the state agency that issues the licenses says it is still reviewing the issue.
Critics see the law as attempting the “erasure” of transgender people.
“It just sounds like something to do to be nasty,” Luc Bensimon, a Black transgender Topeka resident and activist, said during a recent interview.
Later, he added, “You know, it’s scary.”