With last Wednesday’s sine die end to the 2019 legislative session, we can make an early assessment of Kansas politics, the Legislature, and especially Governor Laura Kelly. If a governor’s term consists of four legislative sessions, this is roughly the end of first quarter.
We can’t know what ultimate outcomes will be, either for policies or politics, but we can see some trends and try to understand how the remainder of the game shapes up.
Most importantly, the election of a Democratic governor has profoundly changed the nature of the game itself. For the first six years of Governor Brownback’s tenure, and especially 2013 through 2016, Brownback and his band of far-right Republican legislators held sway in Topeka. Save for an occasional must-pass piece of tax legislation, dictated by falling state revenues, there was little legislative give and take in Topeka. The overlapping agendas of the governor and Republican legislative leaders made their way into the statute books, limited only by occasional resistance within the courts.
After the 2018 election, Republican leaders had to address the stark fact that Kelly had become governor with a full array of executive powers and the willingness to use her most powerful tool — the veto. Sometimes, as with school finance, the House Speaker, the Senate President, and their allies came to terms with the demands of the governor and, in this instance, the Kansas Supreme Court.
When it came to tax cuts, however, GOP leaders could not override her vetoes of two measures to cut taxes in the wake of 2017 federal tax law changes. Despite the Republican narrative that the cuts were simply returning a state “windfall” to Kansas taxpayers, Kelly had the power to retain a fiscal cushion in the state’s coffers. But she could not prevent a successful override of a measure to pay an extra $51 million to KPERS, an act that Republicans argued was pro-education.
Moreover, the governor did not, at least in the first quarter, have the influence essential to move Medicaid expansion through the process. Despite a series of votes indicating supportive majorities in both chambers, Senate Republican leaders used their procedural power to keep expansion bottled up. Governors can and do go over the heads of recalcitrant legislative leaders; the second quarter may resolve this impasse, but it could require one more election cycle to produce a definitive result.
Administratively, Kelly has discovered that the problems she inherited were broader and deeper than even she — a 14-year legislative veteran — had suspected. The litany of problem agencies — from corrections to children and families to transportation — goes on and on. Not only did Brownback drive out skilled and devoted administrators, but over the last few years he simply didn’t care about implementing policies. They could be farmed out, privatized, and removed from state governance.
The most powerful change in the capitol transcends Kelly’s veto pen. She is the chief executive. Simply put, that means that she will govern. Her administration will continue to address problems, rather than ignoring them or pawning them off on other entities, especially those in the private sector.
The governor will need all four quarters to fully address this administrative decline, but there’s likely no one better to do it. Effective governance takes knowledge, determination, and resources — qualities that Laura Kelly embodies.
Heading toward the second quarter and a political year, the governor will keep moving the ball down the field, legislatively, administratively, and politically. Kansans should root for Kelly’s success. For it will be ours, as well.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor at the University of Kansas.