Steve Rose

A blue wave in Kansas? No, and Laura Kelly has big fights ahead

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita AP

If you look at Kansas today and see solid blue, you may be a bit color-blind. Recently, the state has seen as much of a red wave as blue, but the red wave has been under the radar of most Kansans.

The blue parts are clear. Kansas elected a Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, after eight years of Republicans, including what seemed like an eternity living in the era of former Gov. Sam Brownback and his legion of conservatives in the Legislature. And the upset in the 3rd Congressional District, which includes mostly Johnson and Wyandotte counties, where a four-term Republican was ousted by a novice Democrat, was another highly visible blue victory. But that’s pretty much where it ends. The two Democratic victors got the big headlines, including extensive national coverage.

Well, Brownback may be long gone, but a new cadre of conservative Republicans in a little-noticed red wave has swooped in to take control of the Legislature. And they’re preparing to do battle. Toward the end of Brownback’s second term, a short-lived moderate Legislature went out on a limb with a high-risk fix for a major budget crisis. They voted to raise taxes to balance the budget and to build a surplus, substantially increased school funding and voted to expand Medicaid, but the measure was vetoed by Brownback. That moderate Legislature is no more. Because moderate Republicans dared to increase taxes, many were ousted in the August primary elections by Republican voters who did not see the moderates as heroes, but as tax-and-spend liberals.

Moderate Republicans in the House have been slashed by more than half from the last session, from 23 to 10. Meanwhile, the Democrats have been spinning their wheels. There were 40 Democrats before in the House, and there are still 40 now. Conservatives once again will dominate the Legislature. This was a red wave, not a blue one in the 125-member House.

In the state Senate, there are still only seven moderate Republicans and 10 Democrats — 17 total when they work together. The remaining 23 senators are all conservative Republicans, led by Senate President Susan Wagle from Wichita. She is hard-core and will be a major thorn in Kelly’s side.

This all augers raging battles. It will be Kelly and a minority of legislators pitted against the majority over each and every major issue. One of those that forever haunts the state government is school funding. It should be a painless fix this year. Kansas, which is finally flush with cash, has the $100 million in the bank that could go to schools and would finally satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court. However, conservatives will fight it, trying to get the court out of school funding altogether.

What promises to be the bloodiest fight will be over the fanatic goal of conservative Republicans to pass a constitutional amendment to strip the state Supreme Court of its authority to determine the amount of funding necessary for Kansas public school students to have a suitable — and equitable — education. The bill would require two-thirds support in both the House and Senate. It then would go directly to a public vote, with no say from the governor. By twisting enough arms, it could end up on a ballot. And it just might pass in a low-turnout election.

The governor has made it clear that one of her top priorities will be the expansion of Medicaid. Kansas has been one of only 17 states that have not expanded Medicaid, 90 percent of which is paid for by the federal government. However, more state expansions were just this month passed by voters in three more states, all red — Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. Some think a compromise measure might pass the Legislature and be signed by the governor if it included rigid work requirements.

Get out your color chart. Kansas has become distinctly purple.