Opinion Columns & Blogs

When it comes to the windfall, there are lessons in the past

Burdett Loomis

Burdett Loomis
Burdett Loomis File photo

As the governor, a skilled legislative veteran, prepared to deliver Kansas’ State of the State address, the multiple demands for state funding loomed large. The Supreme Court had mandated substantial additional monies for a critical state function. The highway fund was scraping bottom, placing Kansas’ reputation for excellent roads at risk. Moreover, the governor faced the implications of federal tax laws changes, which provided the state with so-called windfall revenue at the expense of taxpayers.

The Legislature had blown apart highway funding deals for two years and had deferred any action on the windfall. The court had grown impatient. What to do?

2019? Hardly.

The year was 1989, and Gov. Mike Hayden, a past speaker, needed to unblock a legislative logjam that threatened his priorities. Given his legislative experience, Hayden’s circumstances were surprising. He knew how the Legislature worked and how to cut deals.

Yet, during his first two years as governor Hayden failed to make the deals that could move the process along. He deferred addressing the windfall, even as he pushed for a major highway package. In 1987, the year after his election, he called a legislative special session to address roads. The former House leader saw his proposal torn to shreds, as lawmakers resisted his proposals.

Hayden wisely refrained from pushing highway legislation in 1988, choosing to work with a newly elected body in 1989. Regaining his political acumen from his legislative days, Hayden made three important moves. First, he implored the Legislature to address the windfall as the initial order of business, thus sweeping this contentious issue off the table. Second, he encouraged a large highway coalition to back substantial spending, thus building support around the state and across party lines. Third, regarding the Supreme Court’s mandate to construct a new prison to alleviate unconstitutional conditions and overcrowding, he gave legislators running room to come up with a deal to satisfy the justices.

In the end, Mike Hayden’s combination of speed (the windfall), patience (highways), and deferral (the prison) paid off in victories across the board. The key to this success was moving quickly on the windfall; the tax cuts, after some modest delays, passed on March 2. For the rest of the session, legislators could focus on other issues.

Fast forward thirty years. With rebounding revenues, multiple needs, and fresh off a remarkable electoral victory, Laura Kelly noted in her State of the State address the host of issues that require attention. Moreover, the last two elections have mandated a change in direction from the Brownback years.

But where to go, and in what sequence?

Most Democrats have resisted “returning the windfall,” in that we don’t know its size and that we require revenue to address pressing needs. Understandable, but this ignores the fact that Republicans solidly control both House and Senate.

This past Sunday, the Kansas City Star opined that addressing the impact of federal taxes (the “windfall”) should be put off. Maybe. But it might well be more productive to negotiate a deal that links action on the windfall to legislative guarantees for votes on school finance and Medicaid. Both issues likely have the political support to pass.

Conversely, if windfall politics hold other actions hostage, legislative wrangling could easily replace productive negotiating. This would deny Kansans the policies that they have supported over the past two elections.

Tough choices, but as Mr. Dooley put it more than a century ago, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Good luck, governor.

Burdett Loomis is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas and author of Time, Politics, and Policies: A Legislative Year, focusing on the 1989 legislative session.

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