Amid tussle over executive powers, Republicans push for power to nix agency regulations

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Attorney General Derek Schmidt speaks Tuesday at a Statehouse news conference about a proposal to allow legislators more control over agency regulations.

Top Republicans, including Attorney General Derek Schmidt, are pushing to resurrect a dormant mechanism of rejecting orders crafted by state agencies, the latest in a series of efforts by frustrated legislators to ratchet up oversight of the governor's office and state agencies.

The proposal, introduced Tuesday, would allow legislators to reject by a two-thirds vote any regulation put forth by a state agency or statewide officer, such as the attorney general or secretary of state.

It wouldn't be instituted overnight. Rather, the question would be put to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment, the second controversial change to the Kansas Constitution that has been debated in recent months.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the state was a leader during the 20th century on regulatory reform, including creating the so-called "legislative veto" over agency rules and regulations in 1984.

But a series of court cases, both in Kansas and across the country, watered down that process, and Schmidt said the need for greater legislative control over agency regulations has come to a head. 

"I think our system has gotten out of whack with the substantial growth of the administrative state in recent decades," Schmidt said at a Statehouse news conference. 

Leaders brushed aside questions about why the issue didn't receive greater attention when Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, was in office.

Schmidt said it was also not in direct response to a COVID-19 pandemic that has increasingly become a proxy debate over rulemaking authority.

"Obviously we're all focused on issues of oversight in perhaps a manner we weren't a year and a half ago because of the extraordinary use of executive power," he said. "But this is not that issue. This is perhaps an issue we've discovered as a result of having to deal with that (pandemic). But this is an issue more generally."

Still, Gov. Laura Kelly and Republicans have clashed over executive powers throughout the pandemic.

In response, legislators have pondered permanent changes to the state's emergency management law to curb the potential actions for future governors to do things like close businesses or issue declarations of statewide emergency.

Turmoil at the Kansas Department of Labor has also resulted in a Republican push for greater control, including a proposed council of legislators, business leaders and agency officials to oversee any modernization of the state's unemployment systems.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, speaks Tuesday at a Statehouse news conference about a proposal to allow legislators more control over agency regulations.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman said the current state of affairs in agencies like KDOL has prompted them to take action, including the proposed constitutional amendment.

"Sometimes our questions are not being answered. Our results are not to be desired," Ryckman said. "So the (question) is what can we do and oversight seems to be the solution." 

Kelly's office blasted the proposal in a statement. Sam Coleman, the governor's communications director, said Republican leaders have "spent the last year using COVID-19 as an excuse to try to strip Governor Kelly of her power."

"Instead of doing their constitutionally-mandated work, today's announcement is further proof that Republican leaders have no interest in doing the serious work of helping Kansas respond and recover from this crisis, they are only fixated on trying to stop the Governor from doing her job," Coleman said.

This isn't the first time a hot button controversial amendment has gained traction in this session. Last month, lawmakers approved a controversial proposal to clarify that the Kansas Constitution doesn’t grant a right to abortion, paving the way for legislators to pass greater restrictions on the practice.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, rued that Republicans were pushing another constitutional amendment.

“The constitution is nothing to play games with, yet here we are again, considering another change designed to benefit the ambitions of partisan politicians," Sykes said in a statement.

While the abortion amendment will be placed on the ballot for the 2022 primary in August, legislators said Tuesday that they would seek to put the regulatory reform question on the ballot three months later, in the 2022 general election.

The question of when to put the anti-abortion amendment on the ballot was hotly debated.

Democrats believed that it should be voted on in the general election, implying that Republicans feared the prospect of the proposal going before a greater number of voters. Conservatives countered that the issue would gain more attention in the August primary. 

The question of when the regulatory reform amendment might be presented to voters was still open, Schmidt said. Before that can happen, it must pass both the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

The attorney general denied that it was an effort to create a potential campaign plank in 2022, with Schmidt rumored to be weighing a run for governor next year.

"It is trying to get some good public policy enacted," Schmidt said.