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Kansas is Not a Good “Red-State Model”

Opinion Press - May 20, 2013 10:36 am

After the 2012 election put the entire Legislature under conservative Republican control, Gov. Sam Brownback touted Kansas as a “red-state model” for the nation. By Friday that model was looking a bit black and blue, though, as House and Senate leaders traded blame over their inability to agree on taxes and the budget.

Every legislative session includes some culminating drama, inevitably leading to deals and adjournment. But House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, clearly overpromised when they said the usual 90-day session would be trimmed to 80 days.

Brownback and Wagle underestimated the sales job necessary to persuade House Republicans, many of whom have signed no-tax pledges, that it technically would not be a tax increase to prevent a three-year sales-tax increase from ending June 30.

The governor also likely overreached in trying to pass a two-year budget, given the uncertain revenue stream in the wake of last year’s massive income-tax cuts. And it was a mistake for the governor, Merrick and Wagle to try to negotiate a fiscal deal behind closed doors, bypassing the appropriate legislative conference committees and the public.

By Friday, when the chambers were at a nasty impasse, there was even talk of Brownback vetoing any budget bill if the House didn’t also give him his desired extension of the current 6.3 percent sales-tax rate and resulting $250 million annually. A lot depends on how this conservative infighting ends, including whether the state universities and community colleges will see flat funding (Brownback’s choice), a 4 percent cut (House) or a 2 or 1 percent cut (Senate proposals). The governor is right in arguing that any cut would kill the system’s momentum, as well as hamper the ability to attract and retain top faculty.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have been misusing all the idle hours, coming up with bad ideas to further mess up the appellate courts and try to prevent any use of state funds to promote anything resembling gun control.

And Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, inexplicably thought it would be a good idea to further complicate budget negotiations, urging passage of a proviso aimed at crippling implementation of the Common Core reading and math standards and new science standards. Never mind that school districts around the state have spent three years and a lot of money getting ready for the Common Core standards, which were voluntarily embraced by 45 states and are not a case of “the federal government imposing on our schools,” as Masterson put it, or that bills to block Common Core didn’t even have enough support to make it out of either chamber’s education committee.

In the coming days, Brownback and his fellow conservatives must demonstrate that they not only can win elections but also govern. Doing so responsibly means coping with the self-inflicted budget crisis without further harming K-12 schools and higher education or vulnerable Kansans who rely on social services.

At least Kansans now know that like-minded doesn’t mean lockstep.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

City of Salina