Kansas’ governor has killed proposed limits on foreign land ownership

May 10, 2024, 3:34 PM

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Proposed restrictions in Kansas on the foreign ownership of land died Friday when the state’s Democratic governor vetoed a bill that top Republican lawmakers argued would protect military bases from Chinese spying.

The Kansas House’s top GOP leader accused Gov. Laura Kelly of “apathy” toward serious national security threats from China and other nations declared by the U.S. government to be adversaries “of concern,” including Cuba, Iraq, North Korea and Venezuela. The bill would have prohibited more than 10% ownership by foreign nationals from those countries of any non-residential property within 100 miles of any military installation — or most of Kansas.

A Kansas State University report last fall said Chinese ownership accounted for a single acre of privately owned Kansas agricultural land and all foreign individuals and companies owned 2.4% of the state’s 49 million acres of private agricultural land. The bill would have required the university to compile annual reports on all foreign real estate ownership, including non-agricultural business property.

Kelly said in her veto message that while Kansas needs stronger protections against foreign adversaries, the bill was so “overly broad” that it could disrupt “legitimate investment and business relationships.”

“I am not willing to sign a bill that has the potential to hurt the state’s future prosperity and economic development,” Kelly said in her veto message.

Kansas exported $14.1 billion worth of products in 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. China was its fourth-largest trading partner, with $848 million worth of exports, behind Mexico, Canada and Japan.

But Kansas already limits corporate ownership of agricultural land. More than 20 other states restrict foreign land ownership, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.

Early in 2023, before being shot down, a Chinese spy balloon floated across U.S. skies for several days, including over northeast Kansas, home to Fort Leavenworth, home to the U.S. Army’s college for training commanders. That intensified interest in restrictions on foreign land ownership in Kansas, though concerns existed already because of the construction of a national biosecurity lab near Kansas State University.

Kansas House Majority Leader Chris Croft, a Kansas City-area Republican and retired Army officer who was among the most vocal supporters of the bill, said Kelly’s veto leaves its military bases and other critical infrastructure “wide open for adversarial foreign governments.”

“The assets of this state are too important for us to sit on our hands and wait until it’s too late,” Croft said in a statement after the veto.

Some conservative Republicans, including Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, pushed for even stronger restrictions. Kobach backed a plan to ban all foreign ownership of more than 3 acres of land, with a new state board able to make exceptions.

“Despite the governor’s apathy, we’ll continue to work to protect Kansas and its citizens from those foreign bad actors who wish to exploit land ownership loopholes,” House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican said.

A few Republicans in the state Senate balked at the restrictions, and the bill appeared to be just short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto. The bill would have given affected foreign individuals and companies two years to divest themselves of their Kansas properties.

Critics suggested attributed support for the bill to xenophobia. They suggested the main effect would be to force immigrants — including those fleeing repressive regimes — to sell their shops and restaurants.

“To the extent that this bill affects anyone, it affects everyday people, those who are trying to live the American dream,” Democratic state Rep. Melissa Oropeza, of Kansas City, Kansas, said ahead of one vote on the bill.

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Kansas’ governor has killed proposed limits on foreign land ownership