Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Johnson County moderates were the heroes in the Kansas Legislature

Back in 2012, conservative Republicans from Johnson County played a pivotal role in a devastating revolution, creating the tax fiasco that has led Kansas into near-bankruptcy. The predominantly right-wing delegation led the way to the radical tax cuts and business tax exemptions that have brought the state to its knees.

Now, five years later, new, moderate legislators from Johnson County joined a historic counterinsurgency that proved to be the death knell of the 2012 tax mess. May it rest in hell.

Two different revolutions actually played out in Kansas during the past several years. One was the irresponsible tax policy approved in 2012. That was followed later by ill-advised decisions that resulted in inadequate school funding.

Conservative Republicans and a conservative Kansas governor underfunded schools, creating severe budget crunches. It took a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court for the state to spend more on public schools and to target the one-fourth of students in the state who do not read or write at grade level. The high court still must review the Legislature’s newly approved funding plan, which is a whole lot more palatable than those scrawny proposals of a couple of weeks ago.

The counterinsurgency that gained control of the Legislature this week is remarkable because conservative Republicans have for years had both numbers and leadership positions in the statehouse.

The shift toward the center began in Johnson County, with the first of many grassroots organizations assembling to oust right-wing legislators and replace them with pro-education moderate Republicans or even Democrats. Stand Up Blue Valley started with a few passionate parents and quickly spread, spawning similar moderate organizations throughout the state.

The school funding formula that just passed, although not my favorite, is similar to the funding plan approved in 1992. State Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway, was relentless in her pursuit of this outcome.

It may have been the only reasonable option that was politically viable. Rooker rallied votes to push the formula across the finish line. Behind the scenes, other Johnson County legislators, including Rep. Stephanie Clayton of Overland Park, worked with lawmakers from both parties to secure more money for schools.

State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, became the go-to expert on school finance, working to improve education for all students, not just those in her community. Changes in the new policy include statewide funding of all-day kindergarten and more weighting to bolster at-risk students. Bollier also pushed for more evaluations of school programs to determine whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

Another hero this week was Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning of Overland Park, who admitted publicly he had erred in his 2012 vote to slash taxes, a move he now says went way too far. The conservative Republican led the successful effort in the Senate to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto, clearing the way for tax increases and the closing of loopholes to provide the state with much needed additional revenue. Without his support, the bill probably would have fallen short in the Senate.

But the real profile in courage was Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative from Olathe. The powerful and ambitious legislative leader left his comfort zone to do the right thing for Kansas by voting to override the governor’s veto, bringing with him several key conservative votes. He may be the true standout of the session.

Johnson County legislators were by no means the only important players in this story. But if not for them, lawmakers in Topeka would still be burning the midnight oil, unable to stop a stubborn and misguided governor.