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Chapman Rackaway: Legislative session like disaster movie

The 2015 Kansas legislative session was a disaster on par with the movie “San Andreas.” Only Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson wasn’t there to save the day.

By now the story is well-known. A massive deficit caused by significant income tax cuts had to be addressed by some kind of revenue increase just to keep schools operating. Cuts, as popular as they are with donor groups and voters, don’t play well in the reality of public policy.

To avoid the session plunging beyond disaster into anarchy, new revenue streams had to be developed. Gov. Sam Brownback announced he would veto any substantive reduction of his business and income tax cuts, so other sources had to be found. Brownback’s own proposal, mostly predicated on alcohol and tobacco taxes, was dead on arrival.

What were the alternatives, though? None. Despite a cadre of new and supposedly creative lawmakers in the chamber, no alternative plans emerged throughout the session. Most legislators seemed to want to wait for the governor or House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, to produce a plan.

Eventually they got one – seven days after scheduled adjournment. Once they got it, they didn’t like it, and chaos ensued.

Legislators spent extended final weeks of the session (and $1 million in overtime pay) scrambling for options, and a half-dozen competing plans emerged from burgeoning factions within the Legislature. Some of the plans were so absurd as to raise taxes on Girl Scout cookie sales. In a remarkably ironic plot twist, taxes on all Kansans increased – the exact opposite of Brownback’s initial plan despite his insistence to the contrary.

While much blame will go to Brownback, as it should, the real question of leadership and the biggest failure of the year should be directed toward the speaker’s office. Where has Merrick been, and what has he done, other than transform the Legislature from a subject of derision into a subject of mockery?

The speaker apparently never coordinated with the governor on a revenue plan, nor did he vet initial drafts with influential rank-and-file members or the House tax committee. Keeping legislators in the dark about the most important bill of the session is on par with former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s infamous bromide that Congress had to pass Obamacare to know what was in it. Pelosi at least had the votes to pass her bill.

The Legislature, in a complete leadership vacuum, has served up a heaping plate of opposition research to 2016 challengers.

Like “San Andreas” or “The Towering Inferno,” the relief at the end of the 2015 legislative session is that it is over. The damage has been done, and perhaps minimized. Nonetheless, we have been witnesses to a disaster of historic proportions.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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