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Chapman Rackaway: Myth of the monolith

The governor and Legislature are not on the same page.
The governor and Legislature are not on the same page.

Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” features an obsidian monolith, a single unified entity that brings change in its wake. The word “monolith” has been overused in Kansas lately, especially related to Gov. Sam Brownback’s takeover of state government since 2010.

We recently saw the first cracks in monolithic government, and that news promises a significantly different legislative session than expected.

With conservative supermajorities in both chambers, most expected the Legislature to be at Brownback’s beck and call. The governor and his allies rallied an incredible resource base around those selfsame conservative champions to elect them and may have expected monolithic loyalty.

But the governor and Legislature are clearly not on the same page, and his recent remarks show that potentially deep divisions are about to emerge within the state.

Speaking to the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce (the local extension of the entity that backed the conservative takeover of the Legislature), Brownback opined that the tax-revision-driven budget shortfall that fueled Democrat Paul Davis’ near upset election last year was not his fault, but the Legislature’s.

Considering Brownback had enthusiastically called the tax plan a “shot of adrenaline to the heart” of the Kansas economy, the fact he chose to place blame on the Legislature for something he had been touting as a success was shocking. When anti-tax activist Grover Norquist called Brownback’s reversal “detrimental,” the shock was magnified.

More important, though, is it tells us there is no monolith.

Brownback may feel double-crossed by the Legislature. Knowing he had a re-election fight ahead of him, in 2013 Brownback asked the Legislature to extend a sales tax that was scheduled to sunset. Brownback was thinking revenues and re-election. The Legislature thought extending the tax looked like the tax increases they had sworn to forsake to interest groups like Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform that shoved “no-tax” pledges into their hands during campaign season.

If Brownback had monolithic support, he simply would have reminded his legislative minions of the fealty they owed him from their resounding campaign victories and extended the tax with minimal stress. Reality did not bear that assumption out. The Legislature, embodied by statements by House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, that the state’s real problem was not revenue but spending, took significant lobbying before extending part of the tax.

We can expect a similar outcome this year, especially now that Brownback has publicly shown division from the Legislature with massive tax increases, especially on cigarettes and alcohol.

The governor may feel pressure to fund schools, but the Legislature will have other ideas. Some legislators will line up behind the governor, but a number of Republicans will not. Thus we will see an interesting new development: the resurgence of factions in the Legislature.

The monolith may bring change, but our Legislature and governor are anything but monolithic. The Legislature may even decide to make some decisions that Brownback will not like at all.

Factions may align on abortion, for instance, but split apart on “sin taxes,” open firearms carry, or the response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s school funding decision. After all, that is their prerogative, and we should not automatically expect that the governor will get everything he wants out of the 2015 session.

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

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