Bernie Koch gets a warm, fuzzy feeling thinking about returning to Topeka for the Kansas Legislature in January.
He will return as executive director of the Kansas Economic Progress Council, a business group that takes what it calls a moderate approach to government spending and taxes.
Koch covered the Legislature for 34 years, first as a television reporter and as a lobbyist for Sedgwick County, and then for 21 years as the chief lobbyist for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. He was laid off by the chamber in 2008 in a cost-cutting move and missed the 2009 session.
"There was almost universal shock when I left the Legislature," he said.
He did the same job for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce last year, but family obligations and cultural differences brought him back to Kansas.
"My family was still here, my wife's father is ill, so I came back," he said. "I was just really happy to be back."
He was hired by the Kansas Economic Progress Council in 2009 as executive director and chief lobbyist.
Koch, 61, and his wife, Ann, have one grown daughter.
Tell me about the Kansas Economic Progress Council.
"Really three basic organizations started this, the Kansas Contractors Association, the Kansas City Heavy Constructors Association and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.... As the really conservative groups had really come forward and as the state chamber has become more conservative, there was a lot of concern about what was going to happen with transportation, education, economic development that are very important to a large segment of the business community."
How broad-based is the group?
"Probably under 100 members right now.... We have trade organizations and a dozen chambers of commerce, businesses, the Kansas Economic Developers Alliance, so we've got members from Kansas City to Quinter. It's grown quite a bit."
Has the Kansas Chamber of Commerce become too conservative?
"There is very little in their policy about education or transportation other than the spending for it. And they've appeared in opposition, at least on transportation. A lot of my members take an opposing viewpoint. That's the main difference. I have members who have dropped out of the Kansas Chamber, and I have members who are members of both organizations."
So, your group says that government can help business?
"If you look at mainstream thought on what brings economic growth, there are about five things: you have to have a stable legal system, lawsuit protection, private property rights and things like that. You have to have economic freedom to operate a business. And there is strong evidence that investment in capital by business and government, the infrastructure, grows GDP. Another factor is efficiency of labor, not just whether you have labor, but what they know, and that speaks to an education system. And the final thing is technology and innovation."
You've said your group is already having a significant impact. How so?
"Dr. Art Hall at Kansas University had done a study that said we were going to lose billions of dollars if we raised the sales tax and 19,000 jobs or something like that. There were people who said 'We've raised the sales tax before and that doesn't seem quite right, that seems a little too much' and they were looking for other studies out there that would take a more balanced approach. So we were able to work with Dr. John Wong at Wichita State and he said both options are bad: if you raise taxes it's bad, and if you cut taxes it's bad, but you will lose more jobs if you cut the budget than if you raise sales tax by 1 percent.
"A lot of legislators who wanted to vote for a sales tax increase, the majority did vote for it, looked at that and welcomed that. It helped convince people, but it also provided political cover. So I think it had great influence. "
But some taxes are anti-growth?
"I think there something to be said in looking at the state corporate income tax, and we'll take a look at that.... Sam Brownback has talked about eliminating it. I'm not sure we'd go that far. It's more bout how it's applied, not the tax rate."
What else do you think will come in the Legislature?
"I think education will be a big issues, particularly higher education.... The State Board of Regents has put forth a menu of things they would like to see happen over the next several years, $50 million in investments in higher education. There had been a program to repair the crumbling infrastructure of re-gents institutions and that has been delayed by the Legislature."
"Worker's compensation. For the past eight years under two Democratic governors there has been attempts to pass new legislation dealing with workers compensation reform, and it's been stopped at the governor's desk.
Why are you so pleased with the new job?
"I'm was outside the House (of Representatives) and everybody was tense and we're waiting for a vote and I thought 'You know, I'm really happy to be back.' It really was good for me to be gone for that one session because I really learned to appreciate it, being there with people I've known for years.... There's some intellectual stimulation that comes from it and a certain amount of suspense. You know when the legislature goes away, it's like dropping off a cliff. Five o'clock rolls around and you're a lobbyist and you're thinking what are we going to do now? We've been used to working all these long hours. But there is a lot of satisfaction in being able to say I made a difference in one way or another."
Are you related to Charles Koch?
"That's almost always something people ask when they first meet me.... The answer would be no. I'd be wearing more expensive shoes if I was."