On a Richter scale of 1 to 10, the Kansas budget crisis is an 8.5. However, the change of local election dates in Kansas is a full-blown 10.
The budget crisis — as awful as it is — will, for better or worse, fix itself, because the Kansas Constitution requires a balanced budget. Taxes will now be increased to offset the massive tax cuts that have caused the deficit.
Meanwhile, there is a much greater danger lurking that could have a lasting, treacherous effect on Johnson County cities, school boards, the community college and probably, eventually, the county commission.
The insidious plot in Topeka is to fill every locally elected position in Kansas with a right-wing extremist, particularly in Johnson County, where right-wing candidates, by and large, have been rejected in local elections.
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The first step is to change local elections from the spring of odd-number years to the fall of even-numbered years — when voters are casting their ballots for federal, state and county officials.
(In a silly gesture, the Legislature will put local elections at the top of the ballot, before president and all the other federal, state and county offices, as if to tip their hat to those who think local elections will get buried on a super-long ballot.)
The next shoe to drop, after the date change is passed in this session, is to change in a future legislative session to partisan elections, where voters will pick their county commissioners, school boards, community college trustees, mayors and city councilmen based on their political party.
Never mind that a majority of voters in Johnson County in 2000 approved nonpartisan elections for county commissioners under a Home Rule Charter. The Legislature could void the will of the people, according to legal experts.
Supporters of these changes make these two main arguments: If we change to fall elections, where half to two-thirds of eligible voters go to the polls, it would increase voter turnout for those offices. As for partisan elections, we would better know the philosophy of local candidates.
While both of those arguments are undoubtedly true, they are a decoy. The real goal is to change the nature of local leadership.
Right now, in low-turnout local spring elections, reasonable people are elected because extremists do not bother to go to the polls. It just is not on their radar. They have paid little attention to hyper-local races. Meanwhile, good citizen-candidates muster their votes through networking, low-budget advertising and door-to-door campaigning. The winners tend to be pillars of their community who support a continued high quality of life, without a particular agenda, other than well-funded excellence.
The proof is in the pudding. Johnson County has been blessed with great local public officials at every level who have the right priority — continuing the community’s high quality of life.
The vast majority of voters who go the polls in a high-turnout election in the fall in even-numbered years will likely not have a clue about who is running for school board, community college trustee or city offices. With all the hoopla over the bigger offices, the efforts of grassroots candidates will be buried beneath an avalanche of expensive mailers, high-budget advertising, ubiquitous yard signs and robo calls. The messages of local candidates will be lost.
That is precisely what “they” want.
Who are they?
Single-issue advocacy groups, such as Kansans for Life; the National Rifle Association; the ultra-conservative Kansas Chamber of Commerce; the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. These are the groups that will send out postcards with a slate of picks, from president down to city councilman, to a pre-determined mailing list.
They will assume “their” voters will walk into the ballot box like sheep and vote the slate from top to bottom. And they probably will.
Their candidates will come with a litmus test and an agenda.
Local candidates recommended by these advocacy groups are likely to have other things on their minds besides good government and quality of life.
This change will have a dramatic effect on all of Kansas but particularly Johnson County, where the right wing has had difficulty making inroads in local elections. It could easily alter the very things that have made Johnson County the tremendous community it is.
Long after the budget crisis has subsided, this monster will live on.
Reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, at email@example.com.