Kansas and Missouri voters put their bets down on Republicans last week.
The red tsunami tossed some Democrats aside as it swept in robust Republican majorities in statehouse elections coast to coast.
In Missouri, the supermajority of Republicans put on new bulk to more readily override the vetoes of lame-duck Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. If lawmakers can reach their own consensus, Nixon could be virtually powerless to stop them.
Likewise, in Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s re-election came with yet another thoroughly conservative state House and Senate. Conservatives run the Capitol. They’ll have little to stop them but themselves.
These are deep red states where tax-cutting lawmakers with strong aversions to bloated government rule decisively.
Will you notice? You bet.
The Republican rule in the Jefferson City and Topeka statehouses promises continued and confident efforts to keep shaving away taxes. If there’s movement on abortion, it will be to make it less available. Business will gain ground against regulators. And there will be no love for the Affordable Care Act or any other initiative from President Barack Obama.
The struggle over school funding is a perennial in capitols across the land. But now the decisions, and responsibility, rest squarely with the GOP.
The consequences could be profound and wide-ranging.
Any hope Democrats had of expanding Medicaid to add roughly 300,000 uninsured Missourians to its rolls — a key piece of the federal Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare — came crashing down on Election Day.
“Take a look at the elections,” said Rep. John Diehl, a St. Louis area Republican who will become speaker of the Missouri House in January. “Clearly, on the federal level, Obamacare has been rejected by the voters of this country. … It’s also been rejected by the voters of this state.”
Rep. Noel Torpey, an Independence Republican, hopes to convince his colleagues otherwise. Without expansion, he argues, systemic changes to Medicaid long sought by conservatives stand no chance.
But he admits his push faces long odds.
Health care isn’t the only area where Missouri Republicans expect to push back against President Barack Obama. Federal environmental regulations pertaining to farming and emissions could also be in the crosshairs.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, acknowledged that a change in control of the U.S. Senate could mean Missouri lawmakers won’t have to act. But he expects Missouri to continue its role as “a firewall with regard to some of President Obama’s policies.”
In September, Republicans voted to override the governor’s veto and enact one of the most stringent waiting periods in the nation for women seeking abortions. It tripled the waiting period for an abortion from 24 hours to 72 hours and included no exception for victims of rape or incest.
That follows votes in recent years banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, prohibiting doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing drugs remotely and expanding tax credits for anti-abortion centers catering to pregnant women.
There should be no shortage of new restrictions on the agenda when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January. Dozens of abortion-related bills were introduced this year but left undone.
Among the bills introduced are measures mandating that women receive and review an ultrasound before an abortion, requiring both parents to sign off before a minor can receive an abortion, banning abortions based on genetic abnormalities and allowing medical professionals to refuse to participate in procedures that violate their religious beliefs.
“We’ll continue to defend the lives of the unborn so all children have the opportunity to grow into happy, healthy, productive adults,” Diehl said.
Cut business taxes
There’s little appetite among Republican legislative leaders to further slash Missouri taxes. But they’re happy to trim around the edges.
GOP lawmakers pushed through a $620 million tax cut earlier this year that phases in over five years, starting in 2017 if the state hits revenue targets.
For now — with lawmakers eyeing how Kansas fares after its much larger tax cut — that seems to be as far as Republican leaders are ready to go on income taxes.
There is interest, however, in revisiting a package of special sales tax breaks for Missouri power companies, restaurants, computer data centers and others passed on the last day of the 2014 legislative session but vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
Lawmakers are also optimistic that an agreement can be reached to rein in two of Missouri’s largest tax credit programs — incentives for low-income housing and the redevelopment of historic buildings. That could open the door for new tax incentive programs, such as one for angel investors long sought by Kansas City leaders.
Republicans have tried for years to pass two changes to Missouri employment law coveted by the business community.
One would make it more difficult to prove discrimination against a former employer. Another would move occupational diseases — such as those caused by on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins — out of the courts and into the workers’ compensation system.
Nixon has vetoed both, saying they undermine needed worker protections.
With an even larger House majority, Republicans will probably take another shot at both bills.
The larger majorities may also allow lawmakers to tackle another priority of the business community: implementing caps on the amount of damages an individual can receive in a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Missouri lawmakers established limits on medical malpractice damages in 2005, but they were ruled unconstitutional by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2012. Since then, efforts to reinstate caps have stalled in the Senate.
The GOP is also expected to once again take aim at public employee unions by making it more difficult for them to collect dues from members. However, allowing employees in the private sector covered by union contracts to refuse to pay union dues or fees — more commonly known as right to work — still appears too steep a hill to climb, even with larger legislative majorities.
Republican leaders seem eager to delve back into debate over education policy in 2015. But even with larger majorities, they face an uphill battle.
The governor vetoed a wide-ranging bill aimed at addressing concerns regarding a student transfer law over a provision that allowed students in unaccredited districts to attend a nonreligious private school using local tax money for tuition. Even with 108 Republicans in the House, the bill only received 91 votes — 18 short of a veto-proof majority.
Previous GOP efforts to tackle education have run into bipartisan opposition.
One area where Republicans do seem hopeful is K-12 education funding. The party has pushed through funding increases in recent years only to see Nixon withhold the money, pinning the blame on falling state revenues or tax cuts enacted by the GOP over his objections. Each time, there was nothing lawmakers could do about the governor’s actions.
But this year, voters approved a change to the state’s constitution allowing the legislature to override the governor’s budget cuts, shifting the balance of power away from Nixon and toward the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
Bandaging the budget
Republican leaders will have to figure out how to mend a hole in the state’s budget in the wake of tax cuts enacted by Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislative allies.
The state is projected to blow through hundreds of millions in reserves and finish the current fiscal year with $29 million in the bank on June 30.
By 2016, that relatively small reserve could transform into a deficit approaching $260 million.
The state could also miss those targets, tipping into the red before the current budget year ends. Through the first quarter of the current fiscal year, state revenues are $47 million below projections.
The Brownback administration says it has identified $100 million in efficiencies and is looking for more. But many believe budget cuts are in store, especially after the state’s credit rating was cut because lawmakers haven’t adjusted spending to account for reduced revenue.
Currently the state is spending about $350 million more a year than it’s taking in. The deficit could balloon even larger when fiscal analysts meet Monday and develop new revenue projections used for drafting the state budget.
“We have a spending problem,” said Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick of Johnson County. “The easiest thing we do up here is spend money.”
Where any cuts might come from is too early to tell. Yet leading lawmakers say education will not be affected.
Don’t be surprised if lawmakers revisit tax policy, perhaps even adjusting future scheduled income tax cuts to help stem the revenue losses.
Sorting out school funding
While Brownback has promised to make education a priority, the question is whether schools can dodge any budget cuts that may be necessary to adjust for the income tax cuts.
“Schools are very concerned,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “We’re trying to be optimistic that we will be able to get through the budget situation without a harmful cut.”
With education making up such a large share of the budget, it can be hard to cut a budget without affecting schools, Tallman said.
Others think there will be more efforts to expand school choice, possibly by finding ways to send taxpayer money to private schools that aren’t necessarily subject to state regulations.
There also might be a run at limiting collective bargaining rights for teachers, especially after the teachers unions spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a failed attempt to defeat Brownback this year.
Reginald and Jonathan Carr are in prison for a quadruple murder in Wichita in 2000. Brownback invoked their case in the campaign, criticizing the Kansas Supreme Court for setting aside their death sentences.
Now the Carr brothers could fuel the governor’s drive to gain control of appointments to the high court, long criticized by conservatives for decisions against the death penalty and for ordering more school spending. Two members of the court were nearly booted off in a retention election last week.
Appointments to the high court are now screened by a panel of lawyers and laypeople who recommend three candidates for the governor to choose from.
Brownback and conservative lawmakers contend that system has stacked the court with judges whose rulings are colored with their political views.
But a constitutional amendment is needed to change that appointment process. That requires support from two-thirds of the Legislature and a public vote.
The Senate has been more receptive to changing how the Supreme Court is picked. The roadblock so far has been in the House.
Some lawmakers predict there could be an effort, at the very least, to change the makeup of the screening panel so lawyers might have less sway.
Want cues about how the state might approach the environment? Look at Brownback’s re-election campaign.
The governor actively ran against federal protections of the lesser prairie chicken and federal environmental rules that critics say will vastly expand government authority over isolated streams and ponds.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is merely interpreting court decisions related to the federal Clean Water Act.
Both endangered species rules and clean water regulations, Brownback said, could hurt the western Kansas economy by imposing new burdens on agriculture and other industries.
His administration recently persuaded the state wildlife commission to remove a small snake from the state’s threatened species list because rules protecting the reptile’s habitat have been blamed for driving up development costs.
“The economic development picture is going to override any scientific concerns about the environment,” said the Sierra Club’s Elaine Giessel. “That is an unfortunate place to be.”
Lawmakers are also expected to fight over regulations requiring utility companies to generate a certain amount of power from renewable resources.
The Legislature has turned back efforts to repeal those standards the last two years. The rules are expected to survive again, but they might be altered.
Brownback has made Kansas one of the toughest places in the country to get an abortion, signing about a dozen bills favored by abortion opponents.
The governor didn’t emphasize the issue during his re-election campaign, but abortion rights supporters don’t expect regulation efforts to subside.
“They will come back with a vengeance,” said Laura McQuade, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas & Mid-Missouri.
A 72-hour waiting period like the one enacted in Missouri could be in the wings. Lawmakers may once again push bills banning abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected. Such efforts have stalled in the past even in the relatively conservative Legislature of recent years.