Kansas Legislature to test governor’s skill at splitting GOP
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Kansas legislators are preparing to open an annual session that will show whether new Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is skilled at separating moderate Republicans from their more conservative GOP leaders to pass the bills that matter most to her.
Lawmakers expect big debates over the next four months on Kelly’s top priorities, boosting aid to public schools and expanding the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the needy. Republican legislative leaders are more interested in cutting income taxes.
Kelly takes office and lawmakers convene Monday.
A look at the big potential conflicts and political dynamics at the Statehouse:
NEW POLITICAL DYNAMICS
Kansas is going to have politically divided government again for the first time since 2010, when Democrat Mark Parkinson was governor.
It will be a new experience for most legislators: 80 percent of the Legislature’s members – 132 of 165 – don’t have any experience with a Democratic governor. They started as lawmakers in 2011 or later and have served only under Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer.
Republicans retained their supermajorities, 84-41 in the House and 28-11 in the Senate, with one independent there. As a group, GOP lawmakers moved to the right in last year’s elections.
Both chambers still have a sizeable bloc of moderate Republicans, and Kelly will need their votes to pass major initiatives opposed by conservatives and an annual state budget that funds her priorities. Kelly’s election – and her winning GOP-leaning districts in suburban areas – pressures moderates to work with her to avoid gridlock in state government.
“Everybody has some responsibility to help govern,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat.
But GOP moderates also face pressure on their right because Republican primaries tend to favor conservative candidates. If GOP lawmakers are fully united on an issue, they can pass legislation and override a Kelly veto.
Meanwhile, Democrats will have to accept compromises with Republicans to help Kelly.
“I don’t think the minority party can throw bombs at the same level,” said Rep. Tom Cox, a moderate Shawnee Republican.
Kelly was a veteran state senator from Topeka and has established relationships with some lawmakers. But 30 of 125 House members were not serving last year, and four of the 40 senators are new.
SCHOOL FUNDING WILL DOMINATE
After a bipartisan 2018 law boosted aid to public schools, the Kansas Supreme Court said it wasn’t enough because it didn’t account for inflation over time. The best guess so far is that complying with the court requires phasing in a $364 million increase over the next four years.
Top Republicans aren’t sure the state can pay for it without a tax increase. They oppose raising taxes and Kelly promised she wouldn’t during her campaign.
Meanwhile, the state has seen its tax revenues grow. Democrats argue that the growth will continue and it’s time get on with paying the tab to end a lawsuit pending since 2010.
“They are, like, oh-for-10 when it comes to school finance, maybe even more than oh-for-10,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Kelly ally and fellow Topeka Democrat, said of GOP leaders. “If a football team had that bad of a record, you’d get rid of the coach.”
GOP conservatives have argued for years that the Supreme Court is out of bounds with rulings on education funding and they’ve wanted to rein it in by amending the state constitution to make education spending decisions the responsibility of the Legislature. Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, said that fellow House Republicans plan to pursue a proposed amendment to “help us in this litigation.”
Getting an amendment on the ballot for a statewide vote requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers. GOP moderates have balked before and are likely to do it again.
Democrats fear that top Republicans will tie up a school funding bill by linking its fate to passage of a constitutional amendment. Kelly opposes an amendment, as do education groups.
MEDICAID EXPANSION’S YEAR?
Kansas has not joined other GOP-led states that have approved expansions because Brownback and Colyer opposed to the idea. Kelly strongly supports it.
The big calculation for Kelly and other Medicaid expansion supporters is how they get a bill past GOP leaders and the heads of the House and Senate health committees, who oppose it. Those Republican lawmakers can create big obstacles, but with enough bipartisan backing, expansion advocates can force votes.
ANOTHER TAX DEBATE
Kelly has said she wants the dust to settle on tax policy. Legislators in 2017 ended a fiscal experiment championed by Brownback by rolling back big income tax cuts approved at his urging in 2012 and 2013. Those cuts were followed by persistent budget problems.
Many Republicans want to go back to tax cutting. The state expects a “windfall” tied to changes in the federal tax code at the end of 2017, and GOP leaders argue that keeping it amounts to a tax hike.
Senate tax committee chairwoman Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, and 11 other senators have drafted a tax bill and Tyson plans to have a hearing on it Tuesday. Its main provision would allow Kansans to claim itemized deductions on their state income tax forms, even if they don’t on their federal tax forms, where the amount is now capped.