Elections

Kansans will feel the effects of the red election wave, analysts say

Kansans are sure to experience the effects of a Republican majority nationally and at the state level, analysts say. (Jan. 22, 2014)
Kansans are sure to experience the effects of a Republican majority nationally and at the state level, analysts say. (Jan. 22, 2014) File photo

Kansas voters put their bets down on Republicans last week.

The red tsunami tossed some Democrats aside as it swept in robust Republican majorities in statehouse elections coast to coast.

That includes Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s re-election came with yet another thoroughly conservative state House and Senate. Republicans will hold 98 of the House’s 125 seats if the party’s leads in a few close races hold as provisional ballots are counted, to go along with the party’s supermajority of 32 of 40 seats in the state Senate.

Kansas is among the deep red states where tax-cutting lawmakers with strong aversions to bloated government rule decisively.

Will you notice? You bet.

The Republican rule in the Topeka Statehouse promises continued and confident efforts to keep shaving away taxes. If there’s movement on abortion, it will be to make it less available. Business will gain ground against regulators. And there will be no love for the Affordable Care Act or any other initiative from the president.

The struggle over school funding is a perennial in capitols across the land. But now the decisions, and responsibility, rest squarely with the GOP.

Voters made clear that they wanted Republicans running state government in Kansas. Now the GOP will set budgets and make laws with little need to coax help from badly outmanned Democrats or moderate Republicans.

The consequences could be profound and wide-ranging – touching everything from abortion to taxes.

The budget

Republican leaders will have to figure out how to mend a hole in the state’s budget in the wake of tax cuts enacted by Brownback and his legislative allies.

The state is projected to blow through hundreds of millions in reserves to finish the current fiscal year with $29 million in the bank on June 30. By 2016, that relatively small reserve could transform to a deficit approaching $260 million.

The state could also miss those targets, tipping into the red before the current budget year ends. Through the first quarter of the current fiscal year, state revenue is $47 million below projections.

The Brownback administration says it has identified $100 million in efficiencies and is looking for more. But many believe budget cuts are in store, especially after the state’s credit rating was cut because lawmakers haven’t adjusted spending levels to account for reduced revenue.

Currently, the state is spending about $350 million more a year than it’s taking in. The deficit could balloon even more when fiscal analysts meet Monday and develop new revenue projections used for drafting the state budget.

“We have a spending problem,” said Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick of Johnson County. “The easiest thing we do up here is spend money.”

Where any cuts might come from is too early to tell. Yet leading lawmakers say education will not be affected.

Don’t be surprised if lawmakers revisit tax policy, perhaps even adjusting future scheduled income tax cuts to help stem the revenue losses.

School funding

While Brownback has promised to make education a priority, the question is whether schools can dodge any budget cuts that may be necessary to adjust for the income tax cuts.

“Schools are very concerned,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “We’re trying to be optimistic that we will be able to get through the budget situation without a harmful cut.”

With education making up such a large share of the budget, it can be hard to cut a budget without affecting schools, Tallman said.

Others think there will be more efforts to expand school choice, possibly by finding new ways to send taxpayer money to private schools that aren’t necessarily subject to state regulations.

There also might be a run at limiting collective bargaining rights for teachers, especially after the teachers unions spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a failed attempt to defeat Brownback this year.

Picking judges

Reginald and Jonathan Carr are in prison for five murders in Wichita in 2000. Brownback invoked their case in the campaign, criticizing the Kansas Supreme Court for setting aside their death sentences.

Now the Carr brothers could fuel the governor’s drive to gain control of appointments to the high court, long criticized by conservatives for decisions against the death penalty and for ordering more school spending. Two members of the court survived close retention elections last week.

Appointments to the high court are now screened by a panel of lawyers and lay people who recommend three candidates for the governor to choose from.

Brownback and conservative lawmakers contend that system has stacked the court with judges whose rulings are colored with their political views.

But a constitutional amendment is needed to change that appointment process. That requires support from two-thirds of the Legislature and a public vote.

The Senate has been more receptive to changing how the Supreme Court is picked. The roadblock so far has been in the House.

Some lawmakers predict there could be an effort, at the very least, to change the makeup of the screening panel so that lawyers might have less sway.

The environment

Want cues about how the state might approach the environment? Look at Brownback’s re-election campaign.

The governor actively ran against federal protections of the lesser prairie chicken and federal environmental rules that critics say will vastly expand government authority over isolated streams and ponds.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it’s merely interpreting court decisions related to the federal Clean Water Act.

Both endangered species rules and clean water regulations, Brownback said, could hurt the western Kansas economy by imposing new burdens on agriculture and other industries.

His administration recently persuaded the state wildlife commission to remove a small snake from the state’s threatened species list because rules protecting the reptile’s habitat have been blamed for driving up development costs.

“The economic development picture is going to override any scientific concerns about the environment,” said the Sierra Club’s Elaine Giessel “That is an unfortunate place to be.”

Lawmakers are also expected to fight over regulations requiring utility companies to generate a certain amount of power from renewable resources.

The Legislature has turned back efforts to repeal those standards the past two years. The rules are expected to survive again, but they might be altered.

Abortion

Brownback has made Kansas one of the toughest places in the country to get an abortion, signing about a dozen bills favored by abortion opponents.

The governor didn’t emphasize the issue during his re-election campaign, but abortion-rights supporters don’t expect regulation efforts to subside.

“They will come back with a vengeance,” said Laura McQuade, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

A 72-hour waiting period, like the one enacted in Missouri, could be in the future for Kansas. Lawmakers may once again push bills banning abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected. Such efforts have stalled in the past even in the relatively conservative Legislature of recent years.

Reach Brad Cooper at 816-234-7724 or bcooper@kcstar.com.

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