Politics & Government

Colyer’s embrace of divisive adoption bill may strengthen conservative appeal

Gov. Jeff Colyer M.D.
Gov. Jeff Colyer M.D. syang@kcstar.com

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer’s embrace of a measure that will ensure religious adoption agencies can refuse placements to LGBT couples may shore up his standing with conservatives as he fights Secretary of State Kris Kobach for votes.

The Legislature approved the bill early Friday after combative debate over whether it discriminates against would-be parents or protects the rights of faith-based agencies. Colyer said moments after the final vote that he plans to sign the bill.

The legislation prohibits the state from taking action against adoption and foster agencies that turn down placements because they run counter to the organization’s religious beliefs. The legislation does not apply to case management contractors for the Department for Children and Families.

Opponents called the bill discriminatory and said it could lead to fewer adoptions. Supporters said agencies can already refuse placements and that the bill simply ensures that can continue.

In late night and early morning votes, the House approved the bill 63-58 and the Senate passed it 24-15.

The debate played out as Colyer and Kobach battle for dominance ahead of the August Republican primary for governor. At every turn, Kobach has staked out hard-right positions.

A spokesman for Colyer said the bill has nothing to do with winning over Republican voters. Still, in an election year, every decision may hold political consequences.

Colyer seeks to demonstrate to Republicans that he gets results. The adoption bill may be one way to do that.

“It’s not all rhetoric. It’s not all screaming and shouting. It is actually getting things done,” Colyer told Kansas City talk station KCMO on Friday morning when asked how he plans to handle the primary election.

Kobach came out in support of the adoption legislation in March, then tweeted a reminder on Thursday. Colyer hadn’t committed to signing the bill until Friday, but the Department for Children and Families had previously lent its support.

Some conservatives have made support for the bill an electoral litmus test. Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, in April blogged about a previous version of the legislation. He urged readers to find out how representatives had voted on the bill and to “choose accordingly” in the primary election.

Eric Teetsel, president and executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, said passage of the bill wouldn’t have been possible without thousands of Kansans calling on lawmakers to take action.

“While other states shut down faith-based providers by establishing a radical, left-wing sexual litmus test, Kansas has made clear: everyone is welcome here,” Teetsel said in a statement.

Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University, said Colyer’s Christian conservative bona fides are strong. Kansas Christian conservatives aren't questioning whether Colyer is one of them, he said.

“I think it was a matter of more shoring up possibly weak but nonetheless already-existing base of support among Christian conservatives than it was something that he was choosing to do as part of some new or more aggressive outreach,” Fox said.

Since becoming governor in January, Colyer has taken steps to court both moderate and conservative voters. Some of his decisions have even appealed to Democrats.

Just two days before he said he would sign the adoption bill, Colyer issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from asking about criminal histories on job applications — a policy known as “ban the box.” The decision attracted bipartisan support.

With Kobach banking that he can win conservative voters, Colyer needs to win votes from both conservatives and others, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.

“With Kobach there, he has to play both sides of the fence,” Beatty said.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, suggested that the looming election had actually pushed down support for the bill in the House, where it passed with the bare minimum number of votes required. Representatives are up for election every two years, while senators are up for election every four.

“They have to go home today and run this year and say to their constituents that they marginalized and indeed put into law discriminatory perceptions of our state,” Haley said.

He added: “Because we have the cushion, perhaps the margin was larger in passing what many of us know will indeed give our state a regrettable perception of being regressive.”

Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City Kan., said the vote could come up in an election.

"I believe those that made their votes and cast their votes the way they did last night, understanding the emotional charge of this issue, made the decisions they felt they could defend," he said.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said his vote in favor was a genuine vote.

Colyer’s office has not announced whether the governor plans to hold a signing ceremony or when he will sign the bill. He has 10 days to act after receiving the legislation.

How they voted

Here’s how south-central Kansas and Kansas City-area lawmakers voted on SB 284, which would allow adoption agencies to refuse placements based on religious beliefs. The bill passed the House 63-58.

South-central Kansas

Republicans voting yes: House: Leo Delperdang, Roger Elliott, Daniel Hawkins, Susan Humphries, Brenda Landwehr, Les Osterman, Chuck Weber, John Whitmer, Wichita; Emil Bergquist, Park City; Doug Blex, Independence; Jesse Burris, Mulvane; Blake Carpenter, Derby; Kyle Hoffman, Coldwater; Steve Huebert, Valley Center; Les Mason, McPherson; Don Schroeder, Hesston; Joe Seiwert, Pretty Prairie; Jack Thimesch, Cunningham; Kristey Williams, Augusta. Senate: Mike Petersen, Gene Suellentrop, Susan Wagle, Wichita; Larry Alley, Winfield; Ed Berger, Hutchinson; Dan Kerschen, Garden Plain; Ty Masterson, Andover; Richard Wilborn, McPherson

Republicans voting no: House: Steven Becker, Buhler; Mary Martha Good, El Dorado; Anita Judd-Jenkins, Arkansas City. Senate: Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick

Democrats voting no: All area Democrats voted no.

Present and passing: Sen. Bruce Givens, R-El Dorado

Kansas City area

Republicans voting yes: House: Tom Cox, Shawnee; Willie Dove, Bonner Springs; Keith Esau, Olathe; Randy Powell, Olathe; Abraham Rafie, Overland Park; John Resman, Olathe; Ron Ryckman, Olathe; William Sutton, Gardner; Sean Tarwater, Stilwell; Frank Trimboli, Olathe. Senate: Molly Baumgardner, Louisburg; Jim Denning, Overland Park; Steve Fitzgerald, Leavenworth; Julia Lynn, Olathe; Robert Olson, Olathe; Mary Pilcher-Cook, Shawnee

Republicans voting no: House:Shelee Brim, Shawnee; Stephanie Clayton, Overland Park; Erin Davis, Olathe; Linda Gallagher, Lenexa; Jan Kessinger, Overland Park; Joy Koesten, Leawood; Patty Markley, Overland Park; Melissa Rooker, Fairway. Senate: Barbara Bollier, Mission Hills; John Skubal, Overland Park; Dinah Sykes, Lenexa

Democrats voting no: All area Democrats voted no, except one who was absent.

Absent and not voting: Scott Schwab, R-Olathe; Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, Kan.