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Burdett Loomis: Who will set state’s agenda?

  • Published Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Last Wednesday Gov. Sam Brownback laid out his policy agenda in his State of the State address. Given our very conservative Republican governor paired with a similar Legislature, one might reasonably assume that the chief executive can truly set the table for the upcoming session.

For the first three years of the Brownback administration, this was essentially true, albeit with the backing of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and various anti-abortion advocates.

But 2014 may well tell a different, more-complicated story, in part due to the governor’s substantial policy successes to date.

For example, income taxes have been slashed, and eliminated for many entities. This means that revenues have dropped sharply, putting pressure on many state programs, from K-12 education to corrections.

Thus, although the governor may desire to placate pro-education constituents by proposing statewide all-day kindergarten, he immediately runs into funding problems, opposition from many GOP legislators, and questions as to why he doesn’t propose restoring some previous cuts to schools.

But severe, self-imposed fiscal constraints represent merely one limitation on Brownback’s ability to set the agenda.

The most important contending force, by far, is the Kansas Supreme Court, which might once again require the state to fully fund its constitutional public education obligations. The agenda problems are twofold.

First comes the question of funding the formula, perhaps by playing games with what constitutes educational spending (busing? pensions?).

Second, and more profoundly, any court ruling calling for substantial funding will likely lead to a constitutional crisis, given that neither the governor nor the Legislature seems willing to comply.

In his State of the State address, Brownback explicitly warned the court, with its members a few feet away, to stay away from spending mandates. Although this approach plays well – really well – with his conservative base, a major confrontation with the court presents serious political problems for a sitting governor if he is seen as nullifying the legitimate ruling of a coequal branch of government.

Indeed, in 2014 the political implications of setting the policy agenda may well trump the policy effects. If school finance is the 800-pound gorilla in the room this year, the vigorous and well-funded campaign for governor of House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, must rank as at least a 600-pound one.

Given the conservative bent of the Kansas electorate over the past two elections, along with the continuing, profound dislike of President Obama and his health care reforms, a formidable challenge to the governor might seem unlikely. But various polls, healthy fundraising and increasing national recognition demonstrate real potential for a Davis upset.

In turn, such a political context may place Brownback at odds with other conservatives. For example, Kansas hospitals and others are prodding the governor to sign on to proposals, adopted in other states, to use Medicaid funds for insuring more Kansans. So far Brownback has shown little inclination to do this, but a close race might change his mind, much to the dismay of his strongest supporters on the right.

Likewise, the Kansas Chamber has indicated that it wants to review the requirement that 20 percent of the state’s energy production come from renewable sources by 2020. And Secretary of State Kris Kobach presents an entire array of unnecessary voter-registration issues, which the governor continues to sidestep like a farmer in a field of fresh cow pies.

In large part, Brownback’s lack of control over the state’s agenda means that Kansans may have a fascinating legislative session to observe this spring.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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