Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and Gov. Sam Brownback sometimes do not see eye to eye. Even a slight variance annoyed the governor so much that he laid plans to replace her in the upcoming session with Terry Bruce, a Brownback clone from Hutchinson.
That palace coup ended abruptly when Bruce, the Senate majority leader, went down in flames in the August primary to a moderate Republican.
Wagle, who almost certainly will remain president regardless of the November election outcome, got the last laugh. Flanked by a half-dozen Republican senators, the Wichita lawmaker just announced a plan for a “better Kansas” to basically ignore Brownback’s budget proposals and instead have the Legislature come up with its own budget blueprint. That would start with the 2018 budget, because the 2017 budget is already baked.
But her main goal was not to embarrass the governor, whom she described as a lame duck with only two years left in his last term. Rather, it was to convince the voting public that their unpopular governor would be neutered. This was to reassure conservatives who are getting an earful of hostility toward Kansas leadership as they go door to door, campaigning for the November election.
So, Wagle wants to paint a picture of a real difference coming. That would be a story nervous conservatives could tell angry constituents to inoculate themselves from Democratic attacks.
What is this sharply new direction Wagle wants to take the state in?
Wagle, a conservative herself, was not clear during an hourlong lunch I recently had with her. She could not explain how her vision of the future would be so different from the Brownback approach to balancing a budget, with the possible exception of eliminating an exemption that allows 330,000 businesses to pay no taxes.
She was adamant there would not be a majority of the 40-member Senate to support any tax increases or to roll back the tax rate cuts of 2012. Wagle said the Legislature would find more efficiencies (more cuts) and have a fairer tax code.
Asked, as an example, whether she would support cutting higher education again after recent steep cuts, Wagle responded, “Would you prefer to cut K-12 education?” She indicated there were few options to make sizable cuts, other than universities.
Wagle was quoted at a news conference as saying that to balance the budget, “Everything is on the table.” No, not everything. Not by a long shot.
Off the table are tax increases. In fact, Wagle made it clear she wants the income tax rates substantially lower than they are now. It sounds a lot like Brownback and makes you wonder why he wanted to dump her. Really, there is not much daylight between the agendas of Wagle and Brownback, with the glaring exception of eliminating the LLC loophole, which Brownback considers his legacy.
Wagle’s extreme conservative colors came through when she declared publicly that any Supreme Court decision on school funding would be treated as a “suggestion,” not an “order.”
If the Supreme Court, as expected, orders more funding to adequately lift spending for all schools in Kansas, Wagle said she would balk. “There would be a constitutional crisis,” she predicted. (No, I don’t believe there would be a crisis, because the Legislature would inevitably comply, under another threat to close schools.)
Despite Wagle’s call for a “better Kansas,” it is more likely to be a “bitter Kansas” for voters anticipating a real revolution in the Kansas Legislature. They will be bitterly disappointed, even with big gains by moderate Republicans and possibly a slew of Democrats.
Even with the Legislature taking more control over the budget, from what Wagle says now, it won’t mean a real change in the state’s direction.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org.