Many Kansas Republicans likely guffawed in disbelief when Governor Laura Kelly recently insisted she was “a major local-control advocate.” The image of Democrats as favoring big government programs, with Republicans fighting to keep government small and local, is deeply entrenched. The language of the state GOP, presenting Kelly’s emergency orders during the pandemic as examples of “one-size-fits-all” overreach, employs this stereotype expertly.
The truth, though, is more complicated. In Kansas, that complexity is further tangled up in the urban/rural divide, with the localities that the Republican majority in Topeka often seems most interested in defending being Kansas’s slowly emptying rural ones, and with attempts at self-governance in Kansas’s growing towns and cities seen as a threat. When Kansas Senator John Doll (R-Garden City) recently commented “I think we [in the legislature] just do so many things to curb the power of the municipal,” 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 mostly in response to the activism of concerned citizens in Wichita. Second, a bill to prevent Kansas cities and counties from responding to safety and health concerns by issuing municipal IDs to undocumented workers, which emerged mostly in response to a carefully negotiated ordinance passed in Wyandotte County. The vote was close in both cases (though closer in the first than the second), thus potentially allowing Governor Kelly, in contrast to the dominant Republican narrative, to use her veto pen in defense of localism.