Three-party politics is back in Kansas, with moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Democrats. Deals being made and leadership changes afoot all point to a new era – but the state’s problems remain daunting.
In the race for House Minority Leader, the narrow defeat of the centrist, conciliatory Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, by the more partisan, fiery Jim Ward, D-Wichita, portends a new direction for Kansas Democrats.
Meanwhile, moderate Republicans – the other group gaining seats in 2016 – are cross-pressured. They have won a number of significant committee spots and other positions, including more power over education funding. However, recent votes for conservative leadership constitute a sharp reminder that moderate Republicans must work with their conservative party leadership.
Moderates backed conservative leaders: House Speaker-elect Ron Ryckman, Jr., R-Olathe, who won on the second ballot, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who had no serious challenger. Then again, moderates also won several key committee positions and other important roles within the party caucuses, including House majority leader.
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Clearly, they have already realized that they have to pick and choose their battles while working within the party of Gov. Sam Brownback. They will probably focus on closing the LLC tax loophole and on education funding. These are great issues, and this is exactly what voters were promised.
The Democrats have a much freer hand. Though still badly outnumbered, they did pick up several seats, most notably in Wichita, plus one in the Senate. It now falls to Ward, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and their colleagues to lead, spelling out a clear agenda.
Democrats should fight for passing a new school base funding formula that insures stable funding statewide; ending the pointless and destructive “border war” tax breaks between Kansas and Missouri; bringing some sanity to the state’s “constitutional carry” gun laws; creating “lockboxes” to protect the highway, children’s health, and other trust funds; demanding long-term solutions to the state’s hemorrhaging budget mess; defending professionalism, experience, and competence among state workers and opposing the return of political patronage; and completing a top-to-bottom audit of KanCare.
Moderate Republicans will fight hard for their priorities, but must also pick their battles, often inside the GOP caucus. It’s up to Democratic lawmakers to show Kansans another way forward.
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.