During the budget crisis in 2002, then-Kansas Republican Party chairman Mark Parkinson lamented the lack of a "knight-in-shining-armor solution" and said "it's either dramatically cut budgets or significantly increase taxes."
Fast-forward eight years.
Now a Democratic governor and perhaps wishing for some armor, Parkinson favored the latter approach in Monday night's State of the State address in Topeka. He opened what will be an uncommonly difficult legislative session with a plea to cut no more and instead pass a 55-cent-per-pack hike in the cigarette tax and a 1 percent, 36-month sales-tax hike.
Speaking "as a person who is fiscally responsible, a person who has cut more out of our state budget than any Kansan in history, there isn't $400 million left that we can responsibly cut" — he said, urging lawmakers to stop cutting education, public safety and aid for the elderly and disabled.
It was a strong, surprisingly personal speech that reflected the native Wichitan's passion for the state and belief in its people and potential — both to get out of this economic mess and to thrive in the future.
Parkinson seemingly should be limited this year by his status as both a turncoat and a lame duck. But since Kathleen Sebelius left Kansas to join President Obama's Cabinet, Parkinson has gained bipartisan respect in Topeka and shown welcome leadership and courage. His decision not to run for his job this year has freed him to concentrate on the state's fiscal problems and a few key priorities.
He left no doubt about those priorities Monday while hailing the vision of the state's founders —"outstanding public schools, great universities, safe communities and an economic climate that would allow all Kansans to prosper."
He showed foresight in suggesting that two-tenths of his proposed 1-cent sales-tax increase be retained long term to fund a new transportation plan, and that lawmakers pass a "real public smoking ban," pursue a rainy-day fund and continue toward the goal of making Kansas a renewable-energy leader.
"What I am not open to are further crippling cuts to our critical state programs," he said, calling it "a fight worth fighting."
Parkinson will have to wage that fight personally if he has any hope of guarding his priorities from further cuts: Republicans have a 31-9 majority in the Senate, a 76-49 majority in the House and no inclination to raise taxes.
In his party's response to Parkinson, House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said it was a tax hike that "would in the long run cripple Kansas businesses and in turn undermine the long term fiscal health of our state government." And House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, said over the weekend that "we have a golden opportunity this session to make government run better on less money."
But can O'Neal, Yoder and other leaders do so without running the state off a cliff?
State legislators need to be prepared to consider all choices from all angles, from here through adjournment. With Parkinson's priorities now in hand, it's their turn to act.