Clay Wirestone: Two more Kansas constitutional amendment votes loom. Here’s what they do, and what they mean (Column)

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Kansans might think they’re done with state constitutional amendments. Unfortunately, the state constitutional amendments aren’t done with them.

Fresh on the heels of the Aug. 2 anti-abortion amendment ballot question, two more revisions to our state’s charter will be up for a vote on Nov. 8. One aims at the executive power wielded over the past four years by Gov. Laura Kelly. The other appears to protect Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, a prominent election conspiracist.

Neither has quite the attention-grabbing power of the Aug. 2 vote, but each could mean profound changes for Kansas government. They also suggest the priorities of a Legislature that has struggled to serve the people of our state.

I’m going to look at each amendment separately, linking to the text and attempting to explain, to the best of my ability, what it does. I’ll also give some background on why these are coming to a ballot near near you in a little more than two months.

As always, the decision is up to you.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican candidate for governor, issued a nonbinding legal opinion saying the Legislature had authority to delay preparations to rebid the $4 billion contracts with KanCare providers until 2024 rather than 2023.. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican candidate for governor, proposed an amendment to the Kansas constitutional amendment establishing a legislative veto. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Power to the Legislature amendment

What it does: In short, this amendment creates a legislative veto over the governor. Lawmakers can pass a measure allowing them to strike agency actions they don’t like, all with a simple majority vote.

According to the explanatory statement, it would “provide the legislature with oversight of state executive branch agencies and officials by providing the legislature authority to establish procedures to revoke or suspend rules and regulations.”

You can read the full ballot text — including breakdowns of what “yes” and “no” votes mean, as well as the actual amendment — right here.

Why it’s on the ballot: Republican legislative leaders and Kelly, a Democrat, have clashed since the beginning of her term.

Back in February of 2021, Attorney General Derek Schmidt proposed the amendment at a news conference with Statehouse leaders. Noah Taborda, then with the Kansas Reflector, wrote: “This legislation comes after a year that presented several unprecedented legal and political scenarios, said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. He did not provide any specific examples of concerning regulations but said the resolution is a response to frequent complaints he has received.”

Cough, COVID-19, cough.

The Legislature didn’t put the amendment on the ballot that year. But they managed to do so this session, “after a decision by the Kansas Department of Labor to add or amend six regulations regarding workers’ compensation,” Taborda reported this spring.

And yes, Schmidt just happens to be running against Kelly for governor. The governor’s pandemic actions offer a target this November, and the attorney general knows how to repeat a potent message.

How it could play out: Let’s imagine the amendment passes but Schmidt loses his gubernatorial bid. The Senate and House, by majority vote, could throw sand into the gears of any executive branch action. That means veto power over virtually anything done by any of the state agencies Kelly oversees.

If the amendment passes and Schmidt wins, on the other hand, the GOP Legislature can simply avoid adopting a law giving it that newfound veto power.

 Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden said the department’s investigators continued to examine potential of election fraud in the county. He promised deputies would “tighten” oversight and security of future Johnson County elections because things were “just not smelling right.” (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Not our precious sheriffs amendment

What it does: All Kansas counties save one elect their sheriffs, and this amendment would keep it that way for the foreseeable future.

According to the explanatory statement: “This amendment would preserve the right of citizens of each county that elected a county sheriff as of January 11, 2022, to continue electing the county sheriff. The amendment would also provide that a county sheriff only may be involuntarily removed from office pursuant to either a recall election or a writ of quo warranto initiated by the attorney general.”

Take a look at the full ballot text and further explanations right here.

Why it’s on the ballot: Kansas Reflector’s senior reporter, Tim Carpenter, put it plainly back in April.

“The issue gained traction in the Legislature because of discussion in Johnson County about making the sheriff an appointed position rather than keeping it an elective office. Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, a conservative who launched a controversial investigation into unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, was opposed to that change,” he wrote.

Hayden has made headlines. Like this one from KCUR: “Johnson County’s top lawyer sounded concerns that sheriff was trying to interfere with elections.”

Or this one, from The Daily Beast: “MAGA-Shilling Kansas Sheriff Volunteered Staff to Transport Ballots: Report.”

Or this ode from the Kansas City Star’s editorial page: “Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden is a threat to the rule of law. He should resign.”

Guess who else was advocating for the bill, according to Carpenter? That’s right. Derek Schmidt.

How it could play out: County residents don’t just elect sheriffs, of course. They also elect commissioners and a host of other officials. If any sheriff in the state decides to interfere with the orderly functioning of democracy, this amendment would lock him or her in office. Folks could still push for a recall election or tell the attorney general to take action.

If the amendment doesn’t pass, then Hayden and other sheriffs would have to keep an eye on their fellow elected officials, as well as the people they’re supposed to serve.

Constitutional questions

Neither of these amendment proposals appear likely to fire up voters the way that “Value Them Both” did. They both concern the limits of power, on the state and local levels. In the case of the legislative veto, the amendment focuses on agency rules and regulations. Dry-sounding stuff.

Yet the state constitution matters, and changes to it will also change the government that you and I experience. Take this column as a starting point to learn more in the weeks until Election Day.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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