Guest Commentary

Kansas Rep. Nancy Lusk: A new era in Kansas government — bipartisanship

After Kansas legislative leadership efforts stalled out, members took matters into their own hands to find common ground for a tax plan in behind the scenes, bipartisan meetings.
After Kansas legislative leadership efforts stalled out, members took matters into their own hands to find common ground for a tax plan in behind the scenes, bipartisan meetings. Rep. Nancy Lusk

Steve Rose missed the central story of the 2017 Kansas legislative session. His antiquated view of Democrats vs. Republicans, as described in his June 10 Star column, “Moderates were the heroes in the Legislature,” has expired. The key story of the session is that reasonable legislators from both parties were ready to move past polarizing positions and instead solve problems together for the common good of Kansas.

The historic reversal of Gov. Sam Brownback’s destructive 2012 tax policy was a successful bipartisan effort. The Democrats and responsible Republicans who joined together were all heroes, not just a few select Republicans from Johnson County as portrayed by Rose.

The new paradigm of constructive cooperation started with the 2016 election of legislators from both parties who were determined to return Kansas to financial stability. As Democrats and moderate Republicans, we still have our differences, but we learned we can find common ground. With the makeup of the Kansas House divided approximately into thirds of conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats, no one group could go it alone. The vote count required to override a veto by the governor dictated a final solution could not be obtained without the participation and input of Democrats.

Behind the scenes bipartisan meetings initiated by Democratic Rep. Cindy Holscher and Republican Rep. Stephanie Clayton played a crucial role in the Legislature reaching consensus on the final tax bill.

The meetings were first made up of moderate Republican and Democratic women, then expanded to include our male colleagues. While Rose gave credit to Clayton in his column, he made no mention of Holscher or the efforts of the bipartisan group.

Reasonable Republicans, even some conservatives, understood that structural fixes of the tax policy were needed: a repeal of the unfair LLC exemption, a repeal of future scheduled tax cuts and a restoration of a three-bracket income tax system. Democrats agreed on these points, but we also believed a fix needed to include more to offset the tax increases that would impact the poor and middle class, namely the return of the child care tax credits and other deductions eliminated with the 2012 tax experiment.

Rejecting initial tax proposals, many Democrats held out for $400-$600 million more in state revenue to fully fund the budget and K-12 schools. The final compromise was for only $150-$200 million more, but that extra restored:

▪ The Child Care Tax Credit, giving relief to Kansas working families

▪ The medical deduction, which will be phased in to 100 percent by 2020

▪ Mortgage interest and property tax deductions

▪ The Senior Care Act

▪ $4.7 million to bring back 20 certified beds at Osawatomie State Mental Hospital

▪ Previous cuts to Safety Care Clinics ($2 million over 2018 and 2019)

▪ Funding to Community Mental Health Centers ($24.2 million over 2018 and 2019)

▪ $1.2 million to the neglected State Water Fund

▪ Enough revenue for a positive budget balance for the next two years

In addition, state employees got pay raises for the first time since 2008

Unfortunately, the final tax plan compromise isn’t a total fix of the budget chasm created by a conservative Republican-dominated Legislature over the past five years. Highway funds are still being swept. The state still needs to pay back many millions borrowed from KPERS, the state employee pension fund. The funding levels in the new school finance formula bill are a fraction of actual costs, and the state Supreme Court ruling looms.

But a tremendous step forward from the abyss has been made because voters sent legislators to Topeka who stand committed to restoring our state’s prosperity. It is a new beginning for Kansas because we have learned that bipartisanship can work. Fixing Kansas will continue to take two parties, not one. Democratic legislators have much to contribute, as evidenced by the list above. We came to serve and deserve respect for steadfastly supporting fiscal sanity and advocating for working Kansans.

Democratic Rep. Nancy Lusk represents Kansas’ 22nd District in the House.