Steve Rose

This Kansas Republican leader never should have been re-elected

Kansas state Sen. Jim Denning
Kansas state Sen. Jim Denning The Star

It was a very lonely position, endorsing Republican Kansas state Sen. Jim Denning for re-election in his Overland Park district in 2016.

Many moderates viewed me as a pariah of sorts, suggesting I was aiding and abetting the enemy. This was a historic election when many avowed conservatives were swept out of office, both in Johnson County and across Kansas, in something of a rebellion against anti-tax legislators who had brought the state to near bankruptcy.

I was with the rebellion all the way, with the exception of Denning, whom I supported with gusto. He won narrowly with 52 percent of the vote.

I had some pretty solid reasons for backing Denning. But, in retrospect, the reasons were not good enough. Knowing what I know now, I should have done all I could to help defeat him.

Denning does have some attractive traits that set him apart from other conservatives. I suspected he would advance to a major leadership role in the Kansas Senate, which he did. Denning became Senate majority leader, a position of tremendous influence which could help Johnson County in many ways.

Denning is not a go-along-to-get-along conservative who votes blindly as he is told. He dared to buck former Gov. Sam Brownback in opposing the giant corporate tax loophole that resulted in more than 300,000 businesses paying no taxes. He saw it correctly as a budget-buster. Denning said we could not afford that provision, which was a cornerstone of Brownback’s legacy. It was a bold act to oppose it, and I respect Denning then and now for his courage. It eventually was repealed.

Denning, a businessman with tremendous acumen in finance, was going to play a pivotal role in determining how much Johnson County schools would receive out of a total K-12 budget. He told his constituents, and he reassured me on numerous occasions, that he was pro-public education and would fight to win a fair share for his community’s schools.

The truth revealed itself in the current legislative session in which school funding was the paramount issue. Indeed, it was the issue of the decade.

I wrote these words about him in a column following his 2016 re-election: “His strong advocacy for Johnson County schools helped convince me to endorse him.” I also wrote that tax hikes would be needed to avoid cuts in school spending, and that “I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t come through.”

I missed those marks by a mile. Denning’s true colors and his radical view of public education funding were on display when he recently spent nearly every waking moment conjuring up ways to avoid increasing school funding, even though the Kansas Supreme Court threatened to close schools if adequate funds were not allocated.

Denning’s reaction to that order was uncontrollable anger. Denning, in his own quiet way, ranted and raved about how the court had no right to dictate appropriations for schools. To Denning, that is a legislative function, and the courts should have nothing to say about it. He went so far as to conjure up a constitutional amendment which, if enacted, would have stripped the court of any authority to determine whether schools were being adequately funded. He threatened to halt a Senate vote on school funding until such an amendment got a vote. Fortunately, that effort imploded due to a lack of support in the Legislature.

What had I done? Whom did I help elect? Who was this person who would turn out to be public enemy No. 1, fighting against more school funding? How did I misjudge this man on this issue so completely?

Denning’s performance has been beyond disappointing. And if Denning runs for re-election in 2020, I promise not to be fooled again.