TOPEKA — A Kansas politician's plan to allow voters to enact laws without going through the Legislature is drawing criticism from major farm groups, and a fellow Republican leader said Friday that the idea worries agriculture leaders.
Kris Kobach, the Republican nominee for secretary of state, said he's not surprised interest groups oppose his voter initiative plan. As residents of other states already do, Kansas residents could put proposed laws and state constitutional changes on the ballot for voters' approval.
Secretary of State Chris Biggs, a Democrat who faces Kobach in the Nov. 2 general election, said allowing voter initiatives could make elections far more expensive. But Biggs isn't as vocal in criticizing the idea as major agricultural groups.
The Kansas Livestock Association declared its opposition to the idea even before Kobach won the GOP primary last week. In a post-primary e-mail, the Kansas Grain and Feed Association and the Kansas Agribusiness Retailers Association cited Kobach's plan as an example of "industry unfriendly" views.
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Agriculture groups worry that organizations like the Humane Society of the United States would use voter initiatives to push for animal-rights initiatives that enjoy little support among legislators. One example is a successful 2008 proposition in California to ban small "battery cages" for chickens.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton and a farmer, said Kobach's plan is a serious concern for some agriculture industry officials.
"Why would we want to be like California?" Morris said. "Everybody I've talked to about initiative and referendum, their reaction was dismay."
Morris and the ag groups haven't formally endorsed Biggs, but the
Grain and Feed and Agribusiness Retailers' e-mail described the Democratic secretary of state as "worthy of your support."
Kobach said he "100 percent opposes" animal rights groups' efforts, but has faith Kansas voters would reject such proposals. He said he wants to give people greater control over their government.
"Special interest groups and lobbyists like to control the Legislature through cozy relationships they have with individual legislators," he said.
Twenty-six states, including the four surrounding Kansas, have mechanisms allowing voters to put proposed laws or constitutional changes on the ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many adopted them a century ago as progressive reforms.
Creating such a system in Kansas would require two-thirds majorities in the Legislature to adopt a constitutional amendment, which would then be submitted to voters in a statewide election.
The last serious push came in the early 1990s, when Democratic Gov. Joan Finney, a self-described populist, championed the idea. Major agriculture groups opposed the idea then, also citing the potential for animal rights initiatives.
"We're hopeful that he'll reconsider his position," Allie Devine, the Livestock Association's general counsel, said of Kobach.
Morris said the concern isn't so much that animal-rights proposals will pass but that the agriculture industry will be forced to divert resources to fighting them year after year.
"You can send somebody to a shopping center with a petition and people will sign just about anything, and suddenly, something's on the ballot," Morris said.
Meanwhile, the secretary of state's office expects to spend $200,000 publishing two proposed constitutional changes put by legislators on the Nov. 2 ballot. State law requires amendments to be published three times in at least one newspaper in each of the state's 105 counties.
Biggs also said counties face additional costs from "long" ballots.
"There just needs to be a recognition that if we do institute something like that, that there's going to be substantial costs associated with it," Biggs said. "At one extreme, ballot initiatives can turn our elections into very much pet-peeve ballots."
Kobach dismissed such criticism, saying initiative processes work well in many states, including Kansas' neighbors.
"I trust the people of Kansas," he said. "I merely put the issue out there for the people of Kansas to discuss."