One of the most important concepts in government is the difference between policy and politics.
Policy is a set of ideas designed to achieve a particular objective. Politics is the art of finding the votes to put those ideas into place.
The two concepts are different but linked. Good political skills can clear the way for bad policy to be enacted — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts are an example.
At the same time, good policy can fall victim to bad politics. Former Gov. Jay Nixon lacked the political skills to convince Missouri lawmakers to expand Medicaid.
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Sometimes, though, both the policy and the politics can be bad. To understand that possibility, let’s examine the debate over a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
The Star’s editorial board supports a new single terminal. We were the first to call for a vote in November — a position the board took before Mayor Sly James and others said that was their preferred date.
But we have raised serious objections to the plan offered in mid-May by Burns & McDonnell to privately borrow funds and build a new facility at a cost of around $1 billion.
No-bid contracts are bad policy. Cities and states take bids because it’s the best way to ensure the lowest cost to the public.
Bids also bring transparency. With competition, citizens can be assured a company isn’t given an unfair advantage because of donations or political considerations.
When another bidder offered to compete for the terminal contract, City Hall opened the process, giving firms just three weeks to provide alternatives. That was an awfully tight time frame. And then the city changed the outline of the deal Monday, making the process even murkier.
Requirements for the contract shouldn’t be subject to last-minute changes. If the city wants to adjust its approach, bidders should be given extra time to respond.
The City Council may discuss that alternative Thursday.
Some critics have suggested we’re too focused on the procedure for a new terminal and not on the end result. But that’s where politics comes in.
The airport election will be about trust: Do voters believe the new facility will be convenient and affordable? Do they trust the city when it says taxpayer dollars won’t be involved? Will voters trust the city’s projections of construction jobs?
Earning that trust is hard in the best of circumstances. But launching the campaign with a surprise, no-bid deal involving a well-connected local company and a unique financing mechanism is virtually guaranteed to arouse distrust and suspicion among voters.
That puts the November referendum in jeopardy.
An open process, with adequate time and serious competition, will help voters trust other promises from City Hall.
Make no mistake: We’ve criticized the Burns & Mac deal because we want voters to say yes, not because we want voters to say no.
The mayor and other airport boosters seem oblivious to this. They think critics should stand aside, let the city work its magic privately over the next couple of weeks, then fall in line and endorse the November referendum.
We think voters are far too smart for that.
The editorial board is ready to make the case for a new terminal, which the airlines need and many Kansas Citians want. But we’ll make the argument only after we’re convinced the public’s interest in a fair, open process has been protected.
That’s good politics and good policy, too.