On the day after an election that exceeded even their own hopes, Kansas Republicans found the weight of governing the state resting solely on their shoulders.
For the first time in 45 years, one party will hold all statewide offices. And Republicans will outnumber Democrats 92-33 in the House, their biggest majority since 1954.
There is little doubt that some legislative priorities stymied by eight years of Democratic governorships will finally be realized, such as sweeping anti-abortion regulations and requirements for voters to show photo ID at the polls.
A bigger question is how the party that promised fiscal austerity combined with economic recovery will go about accomplishing that.
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Newly elected Gov. Sam Brownback has vowed to govern on the conservative principles he outlined in his campaign’s “Road Map for Kansas.”
“We haven’t had a Republican governor in eight years and a conservative governor in 50 years, and you have a lot of people going ‘I have an idea for you,’ ” he said. “I understand, but we have an agenda that is set here and this is what we are going to do. This is what we ran on, this is what the people elected us on.”
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, hopes that Brownback will not simply add on to previous state budgets, but take a close look at how money is spent.
“Part of that has to do with making government efficient but still effective,” Brunk said. “Rather than asking taxpayers to just pony up more money we need to make sure our own state fiscal house is in order first.”
With the overwhelming majority comes renewed responsibility, some said.
“We (Republicans and Democrats) spent the last six years in the Legislature blaming each other,” said state Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard.
Now, he said, “The other party has no power. We (Republicans) don’t have anybody left to blame.”
Abortion and voter ID
Republicans are looking forward to enacting two measures that passed both houses in recent years but were stopped by Democratic governors and an inability to garner the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto:
--Abortion restrictions. Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a bill that would have required doctors who perform an abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy to provide state regulators with a full description of the medical condition that led to the abortion. It also would have allowed an abortion patient’s family members to sue the doctor if they felt the abortion had been performed illegally. Gov. Mark Parkinson said in his veto message that the bill tried to regulate “a private decision that should not be dictated by public officials.”
--Voter ID. In 2008, both houses passed a bill that would have required voters to show a driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot.
Then-Gov., Kathleen Sebelius and Democrats blocked the bill, contending that it would disenfranchise poor people, the disabled and care-home residents.
State Sen. Dick Kelsey, R- Goddard, said he expects those bills to pass easily and be signed early in the 2011 session.
Brownback is a longtime abortion opponent and signaled support for voter ID during the campaign.
“Those kinds of things will be done quickly,” Kelsey said. “They (legislative leaders) are starting with what are the sure things.”
Emboldened by their larger majorities, GOP legislators could try to go further on abortion than they attempted when the House had a closer power balance.
Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, plans to reintroduce a bill that would disallow mental harm as justification for a late-term abortion.
Three of the last four state attorneys general have said that the mental health exception must be allowed for Kansas to comply with federal abortion law.
Brownback, on the other hand, said Tuesday night, “I will sign any pro-life legislation that reaches my desk.”
One wild card could be a revisitation of the state’s comprehensive ban on indoor smoking.
The measure passed the Legislature with some support from Republicans, but lawmakers have been facing pushback from businesses, especially bars and restaurants, that have seen revenue decline since they were forced to go smoke-free. The ban is particularly unpopular with Wichita businesses that spent thousands of dollars on remodeling and ventilation to create smoking rooms that complied with a city smoking ordinance.
In a campaign debate, Brownback said he thinks ban supporters got it backwards when they ordered private businesses to go smoke-free but exempted state-owned casinos.
“That smoking ban ought to be on the state facilities and leave the other issues to the local control,” he said during the debate. “That’s the best way a state can lead, doing this to itself and leading by example rather than putting it on somebody else, a burden somewhere else."
Taxes and schools
What the Republicans will do on the biggest issues facing the state — taxes, the budget and school finance — remains murky.
Legislators mostly said that they plan to wait for Brownback to craft a budget and related finance plans. That won’t happen until late December at the earliest.
Candidate Brownback offered few specifics on how he plans to handle state finance.
He has promised to establish an “Office of the Repealer” to look for laws and regulations to spike and to freeze overall state spending.
But he’s hinted that a freeze in spending might not be enough to keep the state’s budget in balance for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Legislative researchers have pegged the potential deficit at close to $500 million — a figure disputed by Parkinson’s administration.
“There are a fair number of areas that we can no longer afford to do, that are not a core function of government,” Brownback has said.
Ken Ciboski, a professor of political science at Wichita State University and a Republican, said he thinks Brownback will “build on some of the things Mark Parkinson has done.” He cited in particular the still-confidential, governor-negotiated incentive plan to try to keep Hawker Beechcraft aircraft manufacturing jobs in Wichita.
Ciboski said Brownback has talked about rethinking the formulas on state tax policy and school spending. But, he added, “I don’t think he’s quite spelled out how he’s going to do that.”
During the campaign, Brownback spoke nostalgically about the previous school finance formula, which relied less on state spending and more on local property taxes.
The state Supreme Court struck down that formula, ruling that it violated the state Constitution’s provision that the Legislature provide adequate funding for all students.
Republicans said during their campaigns that more school funding should go to instruction and less to buildings. But the candidates offered little guidance on how to overcome legal prohibitions against using voter-approved building funds for ongoing operating expenses.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he’s “cautiously optimistic that we will be able to move forward with a more responsible budget and no more tax increases.”
But he said he doesn’t expect that to happen without some serious cuts.
“We are $300 million down if we are lucky and the big things on the table are education and the unfunded liabilities for social services,” he said. “There are some painful things to be done.”
Brownback told The Eagle hours after his election that he wants to study the state’s tax system to determine what changes need to be made.
“We will do that because it is really the right chance for us to look at that,” he said. “The focus is going to be what we can do to create jobs and control spending.”
Although Republicans hammered Democrats for passing a three-year increase in the sales tax to solve this year’s budget crisis, Brownback said he doesn’t plan to repeal it.
“What I want to look at is the mix of taxes in Kansas, because I don’t think we have a pro-growth tax mix in Kansas.”
Rep. Dale Swenson of Wichita, a Republican turned Democrat who lost his seat Tuesday, said he thinks he knows exactly what Brownback means by a “pro-growth tax mix.”
“I expect the Legislature to pass a business tax cut and force taxes up for the rest of us,” he said.
He said it wouldn’t be unprecedented. “We had a sales tax increase (this year) because we passed cuts for business,” he said.
Contributing: Associated Press