By Russell Fox Professor of Political Science Wichita State University
Many Kansas Republicans probably burst out laughing in disbelief when Gov. Laura Kelly recently insisted she was “a major advocate for local control.” The image of Democrats favoring big government programs, with Republicans fighting to keep government small and local, runs deep. The state’s GOP language, presenting Kelly’s emergency ordinances during the pandemic as examples of “one size fits all” overreach, expertly uses this stereotype.
The truth, however, is more complicated. In Kansas, this complexity is further tangled in the urban/rural divide, with the localities that the Republican majority in Topeka often seems most interested in defending being the slowly emptying rural parts of Kansas, and attempts at self-governance in growing Kansas towns and cities seen as a threat. When Kansas Senator John Doll (R-Garden City) recently commented “I think we [in the legislature] it is enough to do so many things to curb the power of the municipal authorities”, his frustration was justified.
This session included two clear examples of this dynamic. First, a bill to prevent Kansas cities and counties from acknowledging popular environmental concerns by banning or taxing plastic bags, which emerged primarily in response to activism by concerned citizens in Wichita. Second, a bill to prevent Kansas cities and counties from addressing safety and health concerns by issuing municipal ID cards to undocumented workers, which emerged primarily in response to a carefully negotiated ordinance passed in Wyandotte County. The vote was close in both cases (though tighter in the first case than the second), thus potentially allowing Governor Kelly, contrary to the mainstream Republican narrative, to use his veto pen to defend localism.
Anyone who has spent time observing the patterns of Kansas politics through the framework of our population division, and how that plays out in shaping the electoral interests of legislators, cannot find all of this entirely surprising. Over the past decade and a half, there have been many similar conflicts, with most Republican lawmakers consistently rejecting the concerns and priorities expressed in the (very slow, but sure) liberalization of urban Kansas. There have been state laws that reversed the city’s efforts to keep their insurance costs low by preserving gun-free zones in city buildings, and state rulings that blocked the city’s efforts. to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for the medical or recreational use of marijuana.
Federalism has always been, and always will be, a messy area of American politics. Calls for “local control” have a mixed history on both sides of the political aisle and are often more self-serving than morally grounded. States with Democrat-dominated legislatures do not necessarily have a better record of upholding urban democracy. Still, given that Kansas has a literal “Home Rule” provision written into its state constitution, a little more deference and consistency would be nice. (For example, Lawrence passed an ordinance driven by concerns similar to Wyandotte’s with no reaction from the legislature, suggesting that state opposition to local governance is more a matter of political timing than legal interpretation. )
While there is no chance that Kansas will lose its reputation and historically rural character, the fact remains that the state’s economic development is primarily in the hands of the few urban parts of the state. where the population is growing. Local governments there need a free (or at least freer) hand to respond to the interests and beliefs of their citizens. Treating the efforts of urban Kansans in the name of public health, environmental stewardship, and civic life in the places where they live with dismissive inconsistency is no way to keep the Kansas sunflower blooming.