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Chapman Rackaway: Kansas Chamber calling the shots

  • Published Friday, July 26, 2013, at 5:20 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, July 26, 2013, at 5:20 p.m.

The narrative of the 2012 primary elections in Kansas was that Gov. Sam Brownback had a purge in mind, and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce gladly provided the resources to knock out then-Senate President Steve Morris and other moderates in the Kansas Senate. Had the Legislature gladly toed the governor’s line on budgets and spending in 2013, the narrative would have been supported. But something odd happened on the way to full control: The Kansas Chamber decided to pull some strings itself.

While the governor wanted to extend a sales tax scheduled to sunset this July, many legislators instead wanted to end the sales-tax increase and cut spending even deeper than the governor’s preferences. Clearly, the governor was not in the driver’s seat; the Kansas Chamber was.

Most of the targeted candidates in 2012 found themselves off an important list: the chamber’s nebulous “pro-jobs” legislators list. Think of the list as a reverse target list: If you’re on the list, you don’t have to worry about a primary challenge. Find yourself off the list, and someone is going to come at you from the right.

So when the Kansas Chamber recently released its 2013 “pro-jobs” legislators list, it bore a strong resemblance to the 2012 primary endorsements list. The bloc of votes in both chambers that has been most consistent is the group loyal to the Kansas Chamber more so than even to Cedar Crest.

What does the list of fa-vored legislators by the chamber tell us? First, while the governor might want a glide path to zero taxes, the chamber is willing to let the path nosedive instead of glide. Caught between a bloc of cut-first, ask-questions-later representatives and a state that values spending in the right places (K-12, higher education, roads), Brownback finds himself in a very uncomfortable spot.

At least we can assume this is about taxes. Unlike most interest groups that make public endorsements and funnel money to campaigns, the Kansas Chamber does not release its list of key votes by legislators or the percentage of the time each legislator voted with the chamber. While the Kansas Chamber’s website says that a legislator must vote at least 80 percent of the time consistent with the chamber’s vague legislative agenda, we do not know which votes are key or what percentage of the time each supposedly pro-jobs legislator sided with the chamber.

When I asked spokeswoman Emily Mitchell for the list of votes and percentages, she refused even to tell me if legislators had to vote one way or another on the sales-tax bill to be considered “pro-jobs.” Instead, she offered: “If legislators that are not on our ‘pro-jobs’ list review their voting record, they will most likely be able to identify important votes to the business community that they did not make.”

Secrecy appears to be an ever-advancing trend in state government, both by elected officials and those helping certain ones get elected. One thing is for sure, though: We will know by the 2014 primary election filing deadline whom the chamber supports, but not necessarily why.

Chapman Rackaway is political science professor at Fort Hays State University.

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