Government & Politics

Abortion opponents say they’ll wait until 2020 to seek to change Kansas constitution 

Abortion opponents won’t try to change the Kansas Constitution this year in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion.

The delay gives activists time to rally support for an amendment. Republican lawmakers failed Thursday to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a separate anti-abortion bill. Some lawmakers say that shows there’s not enough votes to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The decision to hold off until at least 2020 comes after lawmakers issued angry statements vowing action in the wake of the court ruling Friday.

Republican lawmakers frame the pause as needed to develop the best amendment possible.

“I think the consequences of that ruling are still being determined,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said. “We really need some time to figure out how we’ll address it and I think the voters of Kansas will want to have a say in an election year.”

“Of course, we lose some of the urgency by waiting,” said Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita. “But maybe we gain wisdom in our language.”

But there is some question about whether amendment supporters have the votes now, in the waning days of the 2019 session. They would need two-thirds support from both the House and Senate to place the amendment on the ballot.

Lawmakers this week failed to override Kelly’s veto of a bill to require doctors to tell women that the so-called abortion pill can be reversed.

“It’s veto session. People really want to go home,” Kansans for Life lobbyist Jeanne Gawdun said, adding that amendment supporters need to work carefully to make sure they’re successful. “We’re working that very strategically.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, is interpreting the override failure as a sign that amendment supporters don’t have the votes to pass an amendment.

“Even if it passed here (in the Senate), I don’t think it would pass in the House,” Hensley said.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the Republicans’ decision to wait makes it look like they want to pick the most opportune time for turnout, whether that turns out to be in August or November 2020.

The decision may intensify a 2020 campaign season that is already expected to be raucous. Every seat in the state Legislature will be up for grabs. Candidates will vie to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, and Trump will be on the ballot.

Add in an abortion amendment and Kansas faces a potentially volatile and unpredictable election.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, indicated the November general election may be more helpful to amendment opponents than the August primary. More voters will turn out for the general election, including those who don’t have strong views on abortion.

“I would think strategically if you’re a conservative and you wanted to stack the election towards your side winning, you’d put it on a primary ballot,” Miller said.

But he emphasized that the electorate is mostly mixed on abortion, with many voters supporting abortion rights under some circumstances and not others.

Sawyer said he isn’t concerned about the possibility an amendment on the general election ballot would drive anti-abortion Republicans to the polls.

“Next year is a presidential year,” Sawyer said. “That turnout is about as high as it’s going to get.”

Explaining the decision to wait until 2020 to pursue an amendment, Wagle said lawmakers want the “best attorneys in the nation” to help find the best way to challenge the Supreme Court.

But at least one lawmaker, Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, predicted a constitutional amendment won’t happen until after the 2020 elections. The size of the effort needed to approve an amendment next year isn’t really possible, she said.

“I don’t think you can put something like that together in that kind of a timeframe,” Lynn said.

There’s an alternative to an abortion-related amendment that hasn’t received much attention but might still attract Republican support at some point. Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, suggested lawmakers should consider an amendment changing how the state selects Supreme Court justices.

Lawmakers haven’t taken any action on an amendment proposed earlier this year to have the governor nominate justices and the Senate confirm them. Currently, the governor selects a justice from a group of nominees provided by a commission.

“Maybe that’s what we need to address. That’s probably be where I’d start,” Pyle said.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
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