Opinion: Home rule and popular sovereignty

One of the simplest ways to define politics is as a struggle for power.

This power struggle has flared up again. The Legislature began its 2023 session by introducing a bill that would further disrupt the current power division between state and local entities and also undermine Kansas voters.

Often, in Topeka, this is a struggle between parties, Republicans vs. Democrats, or between branches, the Legislature vs. the governor. But more and more often over the past few years we have seen the struggle for power play out as state government vs. local government.

As you may recall, following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Legislature restricted localities’ ability to respond to the pandemic.

Last year, the Legislature also banned cities from declaring themselves “sanctuary cities” and from restricting single-use items such as bags, cups and other packaging made of plastic — Gov. Laura Kelly signed the former and vetoed the latter.

Now, under current Kansas law, localities cannot regulate abortion services. That power is left to the state alone. This law was originally put in place to prevent certain cities from making access to abortion easier than could be found under state law.

Now however, following the Kansas Supreme Court’s 2019 Hodes decision and the failure of the “Value Them Both” amendment last August, it effectively prevents cities from restricting access to abortion services in opposition to the statewide constitutional protection.

Legislation has been introduced that would repeal this law, allowing localities to ban abortion.

On Aug. 2, 2022, Kansans spoke loud and clear about their desire to protect access to abortion services in our state. The “Value Them Both” amendment was a resounding failure.

Not only does this bill show a lack of respect for the large number of voters who made their voices heard last August, but also for home rule, which is protected in the state constitution. Should it pass it would further establish a precedent that localities can be used as political pawns at the whims of the Legislature.

Any restrictions would still be unconstitutional under the state constitution, but would set the stage for localities to challenge the state and create yet another power tug of war.

Kansans made their position clear twice last election cycle, in both the primary and the general election. They don’t want to increase the Legislature’s power.

Across our country and our state, trust in government is at an all-time low precisely because of actions such as these.

In the 2022 Kansas Speaks public opinion survey distributed by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, a mere 31% of Kansans expressed satisfaction with the performance of the Legislature.

And yet, legislators are supposed to be representing our voice in government.

As we celebrate Kansas Day on Sunday, let’s not forget the long struggle for home rule and popular sovereignty that led to our statehood.

— Alexandra Middlewood, is an assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University.


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