Guest Commentary

Legislating is a marathon, not a sprint

Burdett Loomis, Professor, Political Science, College of Liberal Arts and Science
Burdett Loomis, Professor, Political Science, College of Liberal Arts and Science File photo

The Kansas Legislature opened its 2019 session on Jan. 14. It will most likely close up shop sometime in May. Gov. Laura Kelly came into office with a well-defined agenda, and lots of optimistic Democrats foresaw school funding increases and Medicaid expansion moving through the legislative process.

Conversely, conservative Republican leaders in both chambers, their numbers buttressed by the same electorate that decisively chose Kelly over Republican Kris Kobach, have made aggressive opening moves to return the so-called “windfall” from 2017 federal tax changes back to a select number of Kansas families and corporations who may pay increased state taxes.

Meanwhile, Kansas tax revenue has fallen substantially ($49 million) below estimates for January. No one knows if that is a hiccup or the start of a trend, but it does signal a possible problem for either increased spending or reduced taxes.

And that’s just it. Legislative sessions are not sprints, they are four-month marathons, often culminating in omnibus budget packages and other deals that address a multitude of issues under severe time constraints. This comes as no surprise. Still, every legislative session is different, and sometimes, as in 2019, it will take some time just to understand where power lies and when it can be used.

Crucial here, for Republicans and Democrats, is to determine what is the three-party breakdown of conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats. Although numbers will shift from issue to issue, some rough breakdown will allow Kelly and legislative leaders to assess what kinds of bills can pass through the Legislature and win her signature.

The Senate’s initial salvo, passing a $191-million “windfall” tax reduction, demonstrated that the GOP-dominated Senate likely has no automatic veto-override majority of 27 votes; nor will the House. That established, the legislative process can continue, although we should not expect much in the way of short-term results. As time passes, we will get the February and March revenue reports and then, in early April, a new set of revenue estimates. Only then, perhaps, will the actual outlines of major policy decisions become clear, despite the “deadline” of April 15 for both sides to respond to the Supreme Court’s school finance decision.

All this does not mean that the Legislature will not be busy, and potentially productive, over the next couple of months. A host of younger legislators, mostly House Democrats, are eager to make their mark, with their proposals on discrimination, spousal abuse and other issues; likewise, legalizing medical marijuana is on the agenda, and sports betting may be.

As lawmakers address these issues, with committee hearings and, eventually, floor votes and some attempted veto overrides, legislative leaders will form a better sense of what this year’s version of the Legislature will finally look like.

Ultimately, the dual realities of a Democratic governor’s veto pen and the more conservative nature of House and Senate will define what policies merge from the Legislature. Most likely, we will see end-game legislating and close votes that will determine what Kansas does on taxation, Medicaid expansion and adding funds for school finance.

Recently, GOP senators, per the Kansas News Service, have challenged Kelly’s political strength and her toughness. Let’s be clear, her political strength comes from her ability to veto legislation and hold her troops together to prevent overrides. Her toughness? Ha. This is a legislator who has served in the minority for 14 years and has learned all the ropes. Beyond that, she decisively defeated Mr. Macho Machine Gun in the governor’s race. She’ll need all the support and all the toughness she can muster to prevail as the legislative calendar turns to May.

Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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