Politics & Government

Democrats, moderates have too few votes to override Brownback veto

Elizabeth Bishop waits with supporters at the Murdock Theatre while early returns flow in on Tuesday. (Nov. 8, 2016)
Elizabeth Bishop waits with supporters at the Murdock Theatre while early returns flow in on Tuesday. (Nov. 8, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Moderate Republicans and Democrats could form a majority in the Kansas House next legislative session, but they’ll lack the votes to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto power.

Democrats expanded their number of seats in the House from 28 to 40 on Tuesday, according to the Kansas secretary of state’s office. These gains come on top of moderate victories in the GOP primaries in August.

“It could have been a worse night, but Brownback knew as far back as the primary that he wasn’t going to have a good night,” said Russell Fox, a political scientist at Friends University.

“I think if the Democrats had an even better night, we would’ve seen a Legislature more willing to go mano a mano with the governor,” Fox said.

Pegging the number of moderate Republicans in the House is difficult because many lawmakers avoid using the term. A constitutional majority in the Kansas House is 63 votes, a total that moderates and Democrats should be able to reach together. However, they’ll be short of a veto-proof majority of 84.

Democrats defeated several Republican incumbents in south-central Kansas: Democrat Elizabeth Bishop beat Rep. Joseph Scapa, R-Wichita, in east Wichita’s House District 88; Democrat Steve Crum won a rematch against Rep. Steve Anthimides, R-Wichita, in south Sedgwick County’s House District 98; Democrat Tim Hodge narrowly defeated Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, in House District 72; and Democrat Patsy Terrell bested Rep. Jan Pauls, R-Hutchinson, in House District 102.

Incremental changes

Fox said he expects the incoming Legislature to pursue incremental changes to push the state toward “fiscal sanity,” but added that “as long as you’ve got the governor with the veto pen … I don’t expect big changes.”

Many of the victorious candidates ran on a platform of tax fairness, promising to roll back an income tax exemption for business owners. During the 2015 session, Brownback administration officials warned that the governor would veto a bill to roll back the exemption, his signature policy. That warning was enough to halt any momentum a rollback had that year.

Brownback’s office noted that Republicans retained their supermajorities in both the House and Senate

“Governor Brownback congratulates all of the winners and looks forward to working with them to make Kansas the best place in America to raise a family and grow a business,” Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “He was pleased to see that many incumbents who support small government, pro-life, and pro-liberty policies were successfully re-elected.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, who says she is a moderate, said she expects moderate Republicans to partner with Democrats to pass a new school finance plan in the coming session and to make steps toward fixing the state’s finances.

“More-centrist legislation is going to happen, and that is the big story to take away from this,” Clayton said.

Legislative leadership

The question now is whether moderates have enough votes to elect a House speaker, she said. The speaker appoints committee chairmen and decides what legislation advances to the House floor.

House Republicans, who will hold 85 seats in the House, will elect a nominee for the speaker next month. Clayton said she is “absolutely backing” Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, in that race, explaining that if he prevails, moderates will able to control the legislative process in the House.

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, has said he plans to pursue the speakership, and Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman, is eyeing the job, according to lawmakers.

The Senate remains firmly under GOP control with Republicans capturing 31 of 40 seats on Tuesday, one fewer than they had before the election.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Democratic victories strengthened moderates’ negotiating power, but conservatives still wield a lot of power.

“The power’s going to be whatever happens inside the Republican caucus,” Miller said.

He pointed to the Senate, in particular, where Democrats fell short of their goal to pick up multiple new seats on Tuesday. “You look at the Senate, it’s pretty obvious (Senate President Susan) Wagle is back,” Miller said.

Wagle has repeatedly levied criticism at Brownback for fiscal management of the state, but her preference for fixing the state’s budget problems is to cut spending rather than increase taxes. Miller said it’s unclear whether Wagle will compromise with moderates, who ousted conservative incumbents in August.

“The people have spoken and they are demanding accountability,” Wagle said in an e-mail Wednesday. “We have heard them and we take seriously the charge they have given us. Our Republican Caucus will not settle for business as usual. We know there are problems and we are committed to fixing them. Senate Republicans held a strong majority because we share a vision for the state that requires governing with common-sense principles. I congratulate each of my colleagues on their hard-fought election and look forward to working with each of them to ensure a better Kansas.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3