Local Columnists

Changing Kansas will take time, patience

John Skubal celebrated with several other moderates earlier this month as election results came in at a reception in Overland Park. Skubal, a moderate Republican candidate for the Kansas Senate, got a hug from Sheryl Spalding, president of the Mainstream Coalition in Johnson County.
John Skubal celebrated with several other moderates earlier this month as election results came in at a reception in Overland Park. Skubal, a moderate Republican candidate for the Kansas Senate, got a hug from Sheryl Spalding, president of the Mainstream Coalition in Johnson County. rsugg@kcstar.com

Democrats and Republicans in Kansas are still picking through the shrapnel of the August primary, a detonation that will reset the state’s politics next year.

To recap: So-called moderate Republicans ousted conservative lawmakers in more than a dozen races in early August, while picking up a handful of open seat nominations as well.

Kansas moderates now believe they can assemble working majorities with Democrats in both houses of the Legislature in 2017. In fact, they think they may be within sniffing distance of veto-proof super majorities as well.

We should be cautious as we fill out our moderate-conservative scorecards, though. Labels like “moderate” and “conservative” are squishy and situational. A lawmaker may be moderate on some issues but conservative on others. The reverse is also true, making coalition government a complicated day-to-day affair.

Additionally, some Democrats may decide to sit on their hands and let Republicans cope with the mess they created. That would make a moderate coalition impossible — and make it easier for Democrats to elect a governor in 2018.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s assume a solid, center-left governing coalition in Kansas next year. What would that mean?

Most Kansans think it would mean an immediate rollback of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax and spending policies. That may be too optimistic.

Lawmakers will almost certainly try to increase school spending, and will likely face a court order to do so. But the only way to increase school spending is to find additional revenue, somewhere.

That means higher taxes, and not just on small-business owners. Almost any significant revenue increase will require higher income taxes, and perhaps other tax increases as well.

That’s a tough vote for any legislator, let alone the rookies casting their first votes in Topeka. And it’s particularly difficult because the largest tax boost in state history went into effect just last year.

So another major tax boost, over a likely gubernatorial veto, will be a heavy lift.

That doesn’t mean moderates will be powerless next year. They can say no: to changes in gun laws, abortion regulations, to anything and everything the governor and his conservative allies want. They can reject the governor’s budget.

That kind of recalcitrance may coax Brownback to the negotiating table, on taxes and other issues. He may want to accomplish something before finding work in the private sector.

If it doesn’t, though, Kansas is in for two years of stalemate, very much like the gridlock that haunts Washington, D.C.

Some moderates in Johnson County tell me that’s precisely what they think will happen. Real change won’t come to Kansas, they say, until after the 2018 election, when Sam Brownback is a private citizen.

So the August primary bombshell was important, but not the end of the story.

Kansans expecting a quick change in the state’s economic picture may need to be patient — it may take years, and several more elections, before the state can recover from the governor’s tax experiment.

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