Anyone who has ventured up U.S. 75 to the Prairie Band Casino or has gone to Las Vegas or grew up playing cards knows that 21 is the perfect, unbeatable hand in blackjack. And so it is in the Kansas Senate, as it plays its role in the state's difficult budget politics of 2011.
My interns and I recently took a short field trip from the Capitol to watch a pro-Kansas Arts Commission rally at the Judicial Center. It was pretty much fun — lots of costumes (a great John Brown) and amusing signs, with music provided by the Topeka High School drum line.
There were the expected speeches that extolled the many virtues of the arts and the relative pittance ($800,000) of savings in shuttering the commission, as proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback. All in all, it was a pretty typical rally until state Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, stepped to the microphone.
Reitz briefly gave the arts their due, but almost immediately he turned to the politics of saving the commission. He repeatedly emphasized that the votes of 21 senators, a bare majority of the chamber's 40 members, could overturn Brownback's executive reorganization order and restore the commission, although funding would have to come in separate legislation.
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And that's what Kansas politics will come down to on many issues this spring — 21 votes in the Senate to support (or oppose) legislation that the governor and the House want passed. With their highly conservative 92-member majority, House Republicans can pass almost anything they want, including the various spending cuts and reorganizations proposed by the governor. But the Senate remains a question mark.
A recent vote on special education funding provided some early indication that the Senate would not vote in lockstep with the House. Fifteen moderate Republicans combined with all eight Democrats to support increased funding. The bipartisan majority reminds us that on given issues — and the Kansas Arts Commission may well be one of them — the moderate Republican-Democratic coalition is still capable of holding sway.
What the impact will be on overall outcomes, negotiated between the two houses and the governor, remains to be seen. But this coalition, which frequently formed over the past 20 years on school finance and other major issues, appears ready to continue as a viable force in state politics.
Kansas does face tough times, to be sure. But in defining our situation as a crisis and seeking extensive, immediate changes, Brownback and his House supporters are often seeking larger cuts and more profound, often ideologically driven, reorganizational changes than are necessary.
There will be no absolute core of 21 senators who will vote to slow down the Brownback train of so-called reform, but particular issues likely will bring a majority together to temper the pace and breadth of change. To the extent that the blackjack coalition of 21 votes emerges, it will demonstrate the strength of our institutions in their ability to take a second look at important and long-lasting policy choices.