Government & Politics

Conservatives are changing Kansas law in ways that enshrine their power, weaken opponents

The Kansas Capitol
The Kansas Capitol The Kansas City Star

As the lobbyist for Wyandotte County’s Unified Government, Mike Taylor testified against a bill easing gun restrictions.

As he laid out his case, Taylor was put on the spot by state Republican Rep. Brett Hildabrand of Shawnee.

Hildabrand asked if Taylor knew a state law bars the use of public money to lobby for gun control. The legislator wondered whether Taylor violated the law.

Taylor countered that the law only applied to state money. He was on Wyandotte County’s payroll. Hildabrand later requested an opinion from the attorney general, who declined to weigh in.

It was a small dust-up a year ago, but it underscores how conservatives’ virtually unchallenged control of the Capitol opens the way for new policies that could undercut the influence of their traditional opposition for years to come.

Those efforts figure to weaken the lobbying efforts by cities, hamstring the power of teachers unions, limit how academics can speak out on public controversies and mold a more conservative judiciary.

“The reason why conservatives gained control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s office is because the people wanted us to,” said state Rep. Scott Schwab, a six-term veteran from Olathe. “If we get here and we don’t make the changes that the people sent us to do, then we fail them.”

But aggressive action on several fronts has triggered criticism — some of it coming from fellow Republicans — that the conservative majority might strip away basic fairness from the state’s political dynamics, especially with bills seen as targeting professors and the media.

“A lot of these legislators don’t like to hear opinions different from what they believe,” said Taylor, the Wyandotte lobbyist. “There should be room for robust debate and the ability to express contrary opinions in this building, of all places.”

Hildabrand describes himself as a “huge” free-speech supporter. The legislator said he was just uncertain about the law when he challenged Taylor last year.

He simply didn’t think taxpayer money should be used to advocate against gun rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

“I have absolutely no problem,” Hildabrand said, “with people being able to voice their opinion.”

Since coming to power in the last four years, conservatives have reshaped state government — cutting taxes, curbing abortion, tilting the workplace in favor of the employer and restricting the power of teachers unions.

Along the way, conservatives pushed new policies seen by some as stifling political dissent.

Public employee unions are now barred from deducting money from members’ paychecks to help bankroll political activities, which tend to be directed against conservatives. State money can no longer be used to lobby for gun control. And lawmakers have pushed repeatedly to overhaul the makeup of a state Supreme Court that’s ordered the Legislature to spend millions more on schools and that the legislative majority sees as hostile to the death penalty.

“There is an attempt to have a great deal of control and as much control as possible,” said state Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican. “That’s not unusual in government, but I think it’s escalated. I’ve been here five years, and I can see more of it.”

Conservative leadership doesn’t see it that way. Its lawmakers say they’re pressing good public policy that makes sense for many reasons — whether it’s saving tax dollars, encouraging higher voter turnout or making teachers more accountable in the classroom.

House Speaker Ray Merrick said in a statement that legislators must ensure that state laws are “fair and modern.”

“Oftentimes, that irritates people who are determined to maintain the status quo, but it certainly doesn’t indicate malice or retaliation,” Merrick said. “We have an obligation to examine the way things have always been done to make sure it’s still the most effective policy for the state.”

But Republican state Rep. Don Hineman of western Kansas said attempts to muffle dissent are “very, very real.”

“It’s an effort to more narrowly dominate the discussion of really important issues with viewpoints from one side of the political spectrum,” Hineman said.

Some lawmakers say this year has been particularly acute for legislation aimed at clamping down on opposing views.

▪ A pair of lawmakers are backing a bill prohibiting university employees from providing or using their official title when writing newspaper columns.

Critics said the bill was directed at a group of Kansas political science professors who’ve written critically of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature.

Republican state Rep. Joe Seiwert of south-central Kansas said some constituents have complained about critical columns.

“If you’re going to be a professional and use your professional title, then you (should) be professional and talk about the facts,” he said. “Don’t criticize somebody. That’s not professional.”

Constituents, Seiwert said, want to know if the opinions expressed by professors are their personal opinions or reflect the views of the university. “Do the universities approve of what these professors are saying?”

Seiwert has since proposed softening the bill to only require universities to make a policy for determining when a title should be used.

▪ One bill would move city and school board elections from the spring to the fall. The measure’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Mitch Holmes of central Kansas, issued a news release suggesting the bill would dilute the power of teachers unions. “The teachers unions do not want to give up the majority they currently enjoy in low turnout, off-cycle elections.”

The senator, however, said driving down the influence of the teachers union was not the motivation of his bill. Rather, he said the legislation aims to boost voter turnout for local elections.

“I do want the majority to be the majority,” Holmes said, “but I don’t think that’s unfair.”

▪ Republican state Rep. J.R. Claeys introduced a bill allowing city and county governments to post their legal notices on the Internet instead of publishing them in newspapers. The bill was introduced after Claeys’ residency was questioned by a Salina Journal report last September. The bill could cost newspapers thousands but also would save taxpayers money.

Claeys said his bill is not connected to the newspaper report about his residency.

“I don’t know that any argument could be made,” he said, “that by changing the way legal notices are done it is somehow going to prevent the Salina Journal from printing lies.”

But overall, some political observers argue that dissenters have been punished, including a group of moderate Republican senators who were booted out office in 2012 with the help of Brownback.

“We are on the march toward this idea that dissent is treason,” said Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association. “That’s troublesome.”

Conservative Rep. Jerry Lunn of Overland Park said the criticism over dissent is an outgrowth of the state’s political makeup.

“I don’t see it as a conspiracy,” Lunn said. “The state is very red and people may not like that, but that’s the fact.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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