Views from Kansas: Amendment strategy foul

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Passing legislation on abortion will never, ever be easy. It’s just too personal, too far-reaching, too politically radioactive.

But Kansas legislators could have made their vote on a constitutional amendment to allow legal restrictions on the procedure a little easier — and more successful — if they hadn’t tried to shoehorn the public vote on it into the August primary.

Instead the amendment failed in the House on Feb. 7 80-43, four votes short of the 84, or two-thirds, required for a constitutional amendment — with several representatives saying they voted against it because they were opposed to holding the public vote in the sparsely populated August election.

Immediately afterward, Senate President Susan Wagle took the chair in a mostly empty chamber to announce she was sending any House bills back to committee that might be used to expand Medicaid — effectively bottling up that effort in response to the failed abortion amendment in the House.

That’s just reprehensible, blocking expanded health care for lower-income Kansans because a vote on something else fell short.

“This vote just completely changed the course of the 2020 legislative session,” Wagle said in a written statement. “I will work with the pro-life community and will persevere to ensure (the abortion amendment’s) passage.”

Amendment supporters want an August vote because that’s when the more motivated, tuned-in voters show up and most of the rest don’t. And in Kansas, it’s when the vote skews more conservative.

Still, if abortion opponents have the courage of their convictions that the amendment is the right thing to do, they shouldn’t shy away from the challenge of persuading their fellow Kansans they’re right — even amid the maelstrom of 2020’s presidential-year general election in November.

Another reason November has more gravitational pull politically is the very real fear among moderate Republicans up for reelection that greater numbers of conservative voters in August could favor more conservative primary challengers.

So, practically, politically and arguably morally, a November public vote was always going to be the right thing. And it would have been the smart thing, to get the amendment through the House.

There are other reasons, besides the supporters’ August obsession, why House leaders had to essentially hold members captive in their seats much of the day Feb. 7 while trying to quietly twist a few arms and get the four more votes needed to pass the Senate-approved amendment. Kansans for Life announced it would oppose Medicaid expansion unless the abortion amendment were passed.

The House leadership’s decision to hold members hostage for hours Feb. 7, in what is known as a “call of the house” procedure, is a fairly dubious method of persuasion. It’s essentially saying, “I’m digging in my heels until you stop digging in yours.” The gambit only seemed to deepen the heel-digging until the amendment disappeared into a hole.

“I assure you the eight (members) they targeted to change (their votes) are rock solid,” state Rep. Jan Kessinger, Republican of Overland Park, wrote The Star from the House chamber during the forced sit-in.

State Rep. Bill Pannbacker, a Republican from Washington, told his colleagues he voted against the amendment because the public vote would be in August rather than November.

“We live in divided times and no topic is more divisive than abortion,” Kessinger wrote The Star and later wrote to his House colleagues. “This amendment, especially with its August primary date, serves to solidify the divide among Kansas citizens.”

This historic moment in Kansas legislative and abortion rights history is a product of the Kansas Supreme Court’s April 2019 ruling that the state’s constitution protects a woman’s right to abortion. Supporters of the constitutional amendment want to restore and make explicit the state Legislature’s authority to pass restrictions on abortion.

The problem is that, at least for now, the amendment’s proponents may have missed their moment.

— Originally published in The Wichita Eagle

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