Infighting reaches a peak as Kansas lawmakers push session into overtime

It’s the year of the perfect storm in the Kansas Capitol.

A governor at war with leaders of the Senate. Leaders of the Senate at loggerheads with the heads of the House. Moderate Republicans clashing swords with conservative Republicans.

Toss in an intensely controversial tax cut and the always contentious process of legislative redistricting and, in the eyes of many, ill will has swamped the statehouse this spring.

“The worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican first elected in 2004.

Friday marked the 2012 Legislature’s 90th day, when lawmakers traditionally call it quits for the year. But legislators are headed back to Topeka on Monday at a cost to taxpayers of $35,000 a day for what could be another week of work. So far, they have little to show for all their infighting.

The massive tax cut package — which would cost the state $3.7 billion over five years — now sits on Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk, but the Republican governor appears reluctant to sign it and is waiting for a new, less costly bill that may never come.

Meanwhile, the state budget remains unfinished. School funding is unresolved. And a fix for the state’s pension problems remains elusive.

So bogged down is the once-a-decade redistricting for the House, Senate and Congress that some now predict that the courts will be forced to take over.

“We ought to be done. But we’ve done nothing this week. Nothing,” said Sen. Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican. “Why? What’s the endgame? Why are we still sitting here fiddling around? It’s not right for the people of the state.”

Like many conservatives, Merrick is upset with Senate leadership, which is in the hands of moderate Republicans. But moderate leaders point to conservatives and Brownback for complicating negotiations over the tax plan and other issues.

They point out that Brownback’s allies have worked to recruit opponents for many moderate senators.

“All this combined has opened this ongoing wound in the Republican Party,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University. “It’s exacerbated the moderate/conservative split in a way that I haven’t seen it in my 11 years here.”

“When you have the three most powerful people in this building not liking each other, that’s just an automatic recipe for inefficient government, wasteful spending and poor function,” said Rep. Mike Slattery, a Mission Democrat.

At the root of all the turmoil may be what Rep. Scott Schwab calls an enormous power shift from moderate Republicans to their conservative colleagues, who traditionally oppose tax increases and emphasize social issues, such as their opposition to abortion.

Every time you have a shift in political power, “it’s not easy,” said Schwab, an Olathe Republican. Moderates, he added, are not relinquishing their power easily.

But on Friday, Brownback insisted that he’s not at war with anybody and was elected to expand the state’s economy.

“That’s what I ran on,” he said. “That’s what I told the people of Kansas I thought we really needed to do.”

However, the governor later chided the chamber for its lack of productivity, especially over drawing new election boundaries.

“I think it’s reasonable for people to say they should have gotten things done in 90 days,” Brownback said. “It seems like to me the House has worked pretty aggressively to do that. I haven’t seen as much action out of the Senate.”

House Speaker Mike O’Neal said Friday that he wasn’t taking any responsibility for the breakdown in cooperation with the Senate. While admitting that he is “strong-willed,” the conservative O’Neal said he has only reacted to the Senate’s actions.

“My job is to defend the House and promote the things that the House believes in,” said O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican. “Name one thing that the House initiated that was poking a stick at the Senate.”

But O’Neal said he has problems with how the Senate has treated Brownback.

“It’s just pushing back on everything,” he said.

Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, disagreed with that.

“There’s a difference between being disrespectful and having disagreements,” Morris said.

He said that while it’s common for emotions to run high during a session, he has noticed a difference this year.

“It’s probably as bad as I’ve seen it,” Morris said.

Yet House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he doesn’t believe Brownback when the governor claims he’s not battling with moderate Republicans.

“His staff and his supporters have been highly involved in this redistricting process and all of it orchestrated toward one goal, and that goal would be to defeat the moderate Republican senators,” Davis said.

This year the issue is more intense because of how the new maps will affect legislative races, especially with control of the Senate up for grabs. That could decide the fate of Brownback’s agenda.

Tensions flared during the session when the Senate approved maps for its own districts that cut three conservative challengers out of districts represented by moderate incumbents.

Brownback opted to stand back while conservative after conservative lined up to challenge moderate Senate leaders, including Morris. Those conservatives have the support of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other groups.

“That hasn’t helped,” Morris said recently.

Slattery and others said a waste of time and energy has been a hallmark of the 2012 session. He cited the lengthy House debate last week over a resolution condemning United Nations Agenda 21, which promotes global partnership for sustainable development.

“We spend more time talking about a hypothetical U.N. conspiracy theory than on a tax bill that would leave the state $2.7 billion in the hole,” Slattery said. “That is absurd.”