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The vote is tight on whether to shift power from the Kansas governor to the Legislature

Kansas House of Rep
Kansas News Service

Votes were still being counted to sort out whether a change to the Kansas Constitution will prevail.

The fate of an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would shift regulatory clout from the governor to the Legislature remained in limbo early Wednesday because the statewide vote remained too close to call.

The proposed amendment would give the Legislature, long dominated by Republicans, more power over defining how state laws should be carried out by agencies. It would hold particular importance on environmental regulations on businesses, weakening the governor’s authority and strengthening the role of lawmakers.

It creates a legislative veto — effectively giving lawmakers the right to cancel regulations imposed by state agencies even when those rules put into practice the laws passed by the Legislature.

The vote was so close that the future of the state’s governing structure could be determined by mail-in ballots collected over the next few days. Ballots postmarked by Election Day have until Monday to arrive at election offices to be included in the count.

As of the early morning hours of Wednesday, the counted ballots were split about 50-50. The push to reject the amendment had a slight lead of 7,000 votes from more than 900,000 ballots counted.

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If the outcome remains too close to call, it could take weeks to know the final tally. State law requires counties to certify results within 13 days of the election. Then there is the option of a recount before state officials completely certify the election results by Dec. 1.

Meanwhile, voters overwhelmingly approved the other proposed amendment to the state constitution by 62% to 38%. That amendment makes county sheriff elections mandatory in every county — except for Riley County — and limits the ways they can be removed from office. A sheriff can now only be removed by the state’s attorney general or a local recall election.

The rules-and-regulations amendment would allow the Legislature to take away policy-making capabilities from one of the few statewide offices Democrats periodically control.

Republican lawmakers in the spring presented the proposal as a way to move decision-making away from what they see as career bureaucrats in state government and put more authority in the hands of elected lawmakers.

They also said it prevents the state’s executive branch — for now, controlled by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly — from setting rules and regulations that may go further than legislators intended in creating new laws.

But critics saw the proposal as a power grab by the state’s dominant political party, spurred on by frustration with Kelly’s leadership of the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She was the first governor in the country to send students home for the remainder of a school year and she was blistered by Republicans for shutdown actions they thought hurt businesses in ways that were out of proportion to the public health threat.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a powerful conservative political force for the state’s businesses, endorsed the measure. But the change could chill efforts on the state’s ability to regulate business in Kansas.

While debating the amendment in the Kansas House, Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael said that lawmakers would use the new power to invalidate rules and regulations that protect Kansans — such as environmental rules that business groups oppose.

The change could threaten state environmental regulations for clean air and water. Carmichael said industry groups like hog farmers have opposed them as unnecessary and burdensome to business.

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to www.ksnewsservice.org.

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As a Kansas political reporter, I want to inform our audience about statewide government and elected officials so they can make educated decisions at the ballot box. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning those lawmakers and candidates for office about those changes and what they plan for the future of the state. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard.