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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly Vetoes 15 Bills, Most in 29 Years

The GOP-controlled Legislature has promised to try and override many of Kelly’s vetoes, which cover a variety of issues including transgender rights and income tax rates. The governor sees her re-election as a mandate to check legislative excesses.

(TNS) — When Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly was reelected in November, she told supporters that Kansans had voted to keep the state moving forward, embracing strong schools, economic growth and abortion rights.

“We will not go backward,” Kelly said on election night.

Nearly six months later, Kelly has vetoed 15 bills this year – the most of any Kansas governor in 29 years. The Republican-controlled Legislature reconvenes Wednesday and GOP leaders have promised to try to override many of them, as well as numerous other budget line-item vetoes.

Even as Kelly won promising a “middle of the road” approach, Republicans emerged from last year’s elections with a legislative supermajority more conservative than before. The result is a high-stakes showdown over an array of issues, from transgender rights and income tax rates, to abortion information and child care regulations.

Not since Democratic Gov. Joan Finney, the first woman to serve as governor in Kansas, vetoed 16 bills in 1994 has a Kansas governor rejected so much legislation. The most non-budget vetoes ever issued by a Kansas governor in a single year came under Democratic Gov. Jonathan Davis in 1923, who rejected 56 bills, according to the State Library of Kansas.

“It’s a record I’m proud to hold,” Kelly told reporters at the Kansas Capitol on Tuesday. “I’ve looked very carefully at the legislation. I’ve signed those that I thought were in the best interest of the state and I vetoed those that I didn’t think were in the best interest of the state.”

“If that’s 16, that’s 16. If it’s 104, it’s 104. I will continue to do what I need to do to keep Kansas moving forward.”

The current gulf between Kelly and the Legislature’s Republican majority has only underscored the pivotal nature of Kelly’s reelection, which she won by 22,258 votes. At a moment when Republican-leaning states across the country are moving to restrict access to transgender health care, implement voucher-like programs in education and limit abortion, Kansas may not follow in large measure because of Kelly.

“She is standing up there, a very small woman with a mighty pen, protecting Kansans,” said Joan Wagnon, a former chair of the Kansas Democratic Party who was a state representative when Finney was governor.

Republican leaders say Kelly hasn’t followed her “middle of the road” promises. The Democratic governor has rejected what they contend are their own reasonable, common-sense proposals.

Those measures include multiple bills regulating the lives of transgender Kansans in some way, including restricting gender-affirming care for minors and barring transgender Kansans from single-sex spaces inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth. The Legislature earlier this month overrode Kelly’s veto of a ban on transgender athletes competing in girls’ and women’s sports.

Kelly has also vetoed legislation to impose a flat tax in Kansas, which would tax income at a rate of 5.15 percent. While Republicans say the measure would provide relief to taxpayers, Kelly and other Democrats warn it would destabilize state finances after Kansas spent years digging out of budget problems under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s income tax cuts.

The governor has also vetoed a bill requiring doctors to provide heavily disputed information to patients suggesting the effects of a pill commonly taken during medication abortions can be reversed.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said Kelly can do what she wants now that she no longer has to stand for reelection. He argued the vetoes demonstrate “what’s true to her nature.”

The veto override attempts this week will reveal whether Kelly or the Republican caucus has more influence, Masterson indicated. “It is going to show who holds the power on certain issues because we have to operate as a group,” he said.

While a few measures vetoed by Kelly attracted large bipartisan majorities, most were passed largely along party lines. Five bills passed with veto-proof majorities and have a strong chance of having their vetoes overridden, including a bill requiring schools to separate students by sex assigned at birth in accommodations for overnight field trips and a measure applying additional criminal penalties if medical providers do not care for infants “born alive” in an abortion.

GOP leaders have at least another three bills where they have strong chances of overriding a veto. All three bills passed either the House or Senate with a veto-proof majority and are less than four votes short in the other.

They include the flat tax, the “women’s bill of rights” which defines man and woman in state law and regulations in a way that would exclude transgender Kansans from single sex spaces, and a bill that would make it more difficult for abortion providers to access liability insurance.

Kelly also vetoed an additional seven bills that include increased work requirements for older adults to access food stamps, a reduced time frame for the return of mail-in ballots and decreased regulations for child care facilities.

“I think some of the vetoes that she’s made are very very unpopular and I think some of those could make a supermajority even larger,” said Rep. William Sutton, a Gardner Republican.

But Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka who has studied Kansas governors, said Kelly has interpreted her reelection as a mandate to check a GOP-controlled Legislature. He dismissed the idea the vetoes could hurt Kelly politically, saying that, if anything, they will likely help.

Beatty, who has compiled approval ratings for Kansas governors back to the 1960s, has tracked Kelly’s average approval every year since she took office in 2019 by looking at publicly-available polling. As calculated by Beatty, Kelly’s average approval in a state won twice by former Republican President Donald Trump has only risen during her time in office, from 50 percent in 2019 to 58 percent so far in 2023. The 2023 average is currently based on a single poll conducted between Jan. 1 and March 31 by Morning Consult.

“It sure looks like she was elected to be a check on the Legislature and that’s exactly what she’s doing,” he said.

In addition to veto overrides, Republican lawmakers also plan to try to pass a sweeping voucher-like program for education, which in its current form Kelly is almost certain to veto.

While a previous bill that would have provided lower income students with roughly $5,000 to use on private education or other education expenses failed in the Senate earlier this month, lawmakers plan to try again with a similar policy. Advocates say the policy is important to give options to students who don’t thrive in traditional public schools.

“When you believe so much in helping kids then you keep trying,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chair of the House K-12 Budget Committee.

Kelly has also expressed frustration with the current education budget agreed on by House and Senate negotiators. The bill removes a current policy that automatically adjusts base state aid per student by inflation, instead requiring the Legislature to revisit the topic on a yearly basis.

When asked about the budget, Kelly said Tuesday she would not sign any bill that cut funding to public education.

“I think she is really almost singularly keeping us from the raft of extremist policy that would otherwise have been law,” Sen. Ethan Corson, a Fairway Democrat, said.

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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