There’s no way around it but to be painfully direct: You are not being dealt with truthfully about efforts to change the Kansas Constitution.
A Kansas Supreme Court ruling last year on abortion compelled some in Topeka to hijack Medicaid Expansion, rally to change the Kansas Constitution, and grind the session to a halt. It has turned a sensitive topic into a damaging political weapon that undermines legislators’ ability to compromise, erodes Kansans faith in government, and weakens the structure of state government. Yet every legislator knows the clear path to resolution - where two changes could create a bi-partisan compromise and put the issue before voters.
Last spring, the Kansas Supreme Court found a constitutional right to abortion. It doesn’t immediately change any laws; the case was remanded to the lower court for resolution, which could take a while. Nevertheless, on Feb. 7 the House voted on a Senate amendment to grant exclusive legislative authority to regulate abortion. The measure missed the needed ⅔ majority, 80-43.
Since then, lobbyists behind the amendment have applied intense pressure on some legislators. They’ve spent thousands of dollars on patently false advertising. They’ve held gatherings throughout the state to inflame and exploit the emotions of those who have sincere concerns about abortion - and focused that emotion on a handful of lawmakers.
Yet, if allowing Kansans to vote is the true goal, there’s a ready solution. Changing the vote from its current August primary to the November general election moves three members - possibly more - to yes. Adding language to ensure abortion remains safe and legal for victims of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger would likely move another 5 to 10 votes to yes.
And every one of us in Topeka knows that’s true.
Why aren’t we doing this? Well, that might require speculation about politicians who want to consolidate power, win elections, or use this issue to control the legislature. But I can say with confidence that amendment supporters want an August vote because they can’t ensure success in November.
In February, a former legislator-turned-lobbyist for the Kansas Catholic Conference visited Hutchinson. A hand out stated: “Why do we want the vote in the August primary? The No. 1 reason - we want to save babies and protect mothers. Our polling tells us this is when we can win.”
Although the marketing around this amendment champions Kansans’ right to vote, the truth is proponents want a win so badly they’re willing to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters - and risk a victory that carries an air of illegitimacy.
In 1972, 1974, and 1986, voters considered changes to the Kansas Constitution during an August primary in a year with a November general election. In each case, nearly twice the voters participated in November than in August. For example, in 1986 about 350,000 voters came out in August, versus roughly 815,000 voters in November.
Those numbers leave little doubt supporters want to pick their voters. But the words of Sen. Susan Wagle – leader of the amendment effort - during a recent public tongue-lashing of Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning eliminate all doubt.
“Our biggest voting bloc in a primary is the pro-life community and we cannot be asked to step on that community and get re-elected,” Wagle said of Denning’s efforts to advance Medicaid separate from the amendment.
Proponents have muddied the waters by tying Medicaid Expansion to the amendment - falsely claiming if expansion passes without the amendment, we’ll witness a flood of taxpayer-funded abortions. Federal law prevents the use of taxpayer dollars for abortion, and two Kansas statutes do the same. In fact, a recent report found four abortions have been performed under Medicaid since 2013 - all medically necessary. The total cost to the state of Kansas was just over $400.
But facts haven’t stopped the amendment’s proponents from making outrageous claims that some legislators “voted to use taxpayer money to perform abortion up to the moment of birth.” That is grossly untrue. The majority of Kansans doesn’t support that, nor do the people who voted against the amendment - and claims that they do lack equally in fact, civility, and decency.
Discussions about changing the Kansas Constitution deserve our deep thought and consideration. Emotional issues like abortion and reproductive rights often are cast as wholly right or wrong, but they are nuanced, difficult, and deeply personal. If we hope to engage in a civil and productive conversation about our values as Kansans, it’s important that we never lose sight of the overarching value of truth.
Rep. Jason Probst is state representative for the 102nd District in Hutchinson