Each legislative session, we provide Shawnee Mission area legislators the opportunity to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Jan Kessinger, Rep. Tom Cox and Sen. Dinah Sykes are scheduled to send updates this week. Rep. Sykes’s column is below.
Since my election in 2016, I’ve stressed the importance of transparency and making government accessible to constituents. That conviction is why I hold monthly town halls (second Sunday of every month) in both Lenexa and Overland Park. I believe that working together and listening to other opinions generates the best policy solutions. I’m deeply disappointed that some leaders in the legislature do not share that commitment.
After the Supreme Court decision last fall ruling that Kansas’ constitution included a right for abortion, there were immediate calls to amend the constitution to explicitly remove that right. Legislators knew this amendment had more support than the proposed amendments from previous years aimed at eliminating court oversight of school finance in Kansas.
I think that we should be very careful when making changes to our constitution. Those changes have long term effects and making changes hastily or manipulating the processes is unwise. Those controlling the process to amend the Kansas Constitution today do not mind moving quickly or manipulating the process. My purpose in writing here is not to convince anyone to change their position on abortion. I know many good people who disagree about this issue. My purpose is to hold up a light to the “how” this amendment is being rushed through the legislature with arguments aimed not to discover the will of the people, but to ensure an outcome.
The amendment was read into the Senate the first week of session. On the Senate side, the hearings were announced by the chairman of the Judiciary committee. That announcement preceded the referral to the committee. While this parliamentary mistake is minor, the mistake telegraphed the way that leadership had already set the process up to ensure an outcome. In order to further accelerate the process, the House and Senate committees held joint hearings. Everything about the process was aimed to advance the amendment as quickly as possible avoiding the opportunity for serious consideration.
On Thursday, January 16th the committee scheduled hearings for the following Tuesday. Because Monday was a national holiday, that meant there was a single day for citizens to offer testimony to committees for consideration. If the aim of the legislature was to consider the will of the people, hearings could have been adjusted in order to allow people to share how they felt about the legislation.
Despite this attempt to make it difficult for people to share their opinions, many were able (thanks to people who braved the weather to be in Topeka) to submit testimony. Hearings were quick and designed to do one thing: advance the amendment and supporting ballot language exactly as introduced.
When the amendment made it to the floor of the Kansas Senate last week on Wednesday the 29th, committee work was not available to Senators who were about to debate the amendment. Senators who were not on the Judiciary committee did not readily have access to the submitted testimony. When my office reached out to the secretary of the committee, she was unable to help connect us to the location of the testimony. As a legislator, I do my best to read testimony and supporting documents before debate to better understand the background of the matter we will consider on the Senate floor.
Two important things became clear in the debate. First, the proponents of this amendment were unwilling to alter it to protect access to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother. If Roe v. Wade is overturned at the federal level, the constitutional amendment empowers future legislatures to craft any restriction on abortion (even for hardship cases). When proponents assured the Senate that there would be no future legislation coming that would implement restrictions in hardship cases, they were making promises they won’t be around to keep.
Second, the amendment, should it pass the House, will be on the August ballot. Turnout in August is lower than elections in November. During debate, the rationale for keeping this issue on the August ballot was to protect against “voter fatigue.” No one offered an explanation on how the most politically divisive issue over the last 40 plus years would somehow be overlooked at the end of the ballot. Make no mistake, the move to have the amendment on the August ballot is another attempt to try to use low voter turnout to have a minority of voting Kansans change the constitution.
As I said before, my purpose in writing this explanation is not to change your opinion on the proposed amendment. Instead, I’m writing because I have a strong conviction that together we can find the right course forward. The deliberative process can be frustrating; however, when leadership manipulates it in order to achieve goals, we invite the kind of cynicism that feeds polarization.
The antidote to this situation is the kind of sunshine that comes in as we make the process fairer and more transparent. We should be cautious when power allows circumventing the process—fear of the outcomes does not justify shortcuts. We must, as a people, demand better of ourselves. Please continue to stay engaged in what is happening in Topeka and keep your legislators accountable. Agreement on issues or policy might not be possible. Agreement about letting the process work is.