The Kansas House of Representatives, and by extension the Legislature, and by further extension the GOP-controlled government of Kansas, imploded Wednesday.
After the Kansas Senate cobbled together (and I mean no disrespect to shoemakers) a mean-spirited tax bill to (barely) fill the state’s coffers, the House initially voted down that bill, 44-73, before heading into a death spiral in which support eroded as House leaders kept the vote open – first for two hours, then until Thursday morning, when it finally perished by a 20-95 vote.
In other words, the GOP leadership somehow thought it could arm-twist 20 votes or so to eke out a win on a speculative, regressive tax bill.
In a career as a legislative scholar, I’ve seen a host of tricks, but this may take the cake – all in a useless, losing cause. Seriously, what is the matter with these folks?
The Kansas GOP controls the House 97-28. Yet its leadership could not muster one-half of its overwhelming majority to support a bill that might have balanced the budget for the coming year. The best metaphor that the speaker of the House could come up with was: “This is the last train out of here.” Please. It was both hackneyed and untrue.
After 111 days in session, the House could only manage about half an hour of semi-serious debate. To put it as kindly as possible (as the metaphors keep popping up), the Republican leadership, along with Gov. Sam Brownback, went down in flames. Who, exactly, brings up a bill when it’s going to get a maximum of 44 votes, 19 shy of passage?
The Senate, to its relative credit, at least had 21 votes to pass a patched-together tax bill that its leaders knew would probably not win approval in the House. But, hey, they got to 21.
For much of this session, Topeka lawmakers – and I use that term loosely – have been in some state of altered reality when it’s come to the budget and taxes. On Wednesday evening into Thursday morning, they descended into “Lord of the Flies” territory.
No matter what happens in the remaining days of this session (I can’t believe I just wrote that), we need to be clear: This is what it looks like when a political institution fails.
Make that two institutions, given that the governor bears his full share of the responsibility, as he has backed unrealistic tax policies way past the point of seeing them flounder. Then, remarkably, he drew a line in the sand, saying he would veto any bill that reimposed any taxes on 338,000 Kansas pass-through entities.
Well, the Legislature and the governor will pull themselves together, so to speak. They’ll build some kind of budget, probably doing further harm to the citizens of the state. But make no mistake, on Wednesday evening the Kansas state government failed, big time.
More than 40 years ago, the Legislature won an award as the “most improved” body in the nation. My late friend and academic colleague Alan Rosenthal worked with the Legislature then, as it moved into the late-20th century. From Bob Bennett and Pete McGill and Pete Loux to hundreds of other serious-minded, responsible lawmakers, the Legislature continued to function in the messy but effective way that characterizes such bodies.
No more. On Wednesday night, the Legislature jumped the shark. One more metaphor for failure, and they just keep coming.
Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.