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Beltway politics stain Kansas

Joseph A. Aistrup

By A Contributor

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of reckless is “marked by lack of proper caution: careless of consequences.” Synonyms include irresponsible, kamikaze and foolhardy.

It’s now official: Reckless is among the many ways to de-scribe the actions of politicians at this year’s legislative session. Kansas House Republicans, led by Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, have passed the Senate’s tax cut package that would leave an estimated $2.7 billion hole in the state’s budget by 2017. 

In case you don’t remember, back in late March, the Senate had voted down this tax cut package (20 to 20), but at the behest of the governor’s office, came back later the same day to pass it.

This legislative maneuver enabled a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate’s tax-cut proposals. Last Wednesday, in the middle of the Senate’s debate on the compromise House-Senate conference committee report, (a bill that would leave a smaller hole in the state’s budget of about $700 million), Speaker O’Neal and Gov. Sam Brownback decided to push for passage of the original tax-cut bill the Senate passed in March. The Speaker’s conservative House Republicans allies quickly did so.

Gov. Brownback has now promised to sign this larger tax cut measure, effectively stabbing Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, in the back.  This is a classic tit-for-tat reprisal. Brownback and O’Neal feel Morris did not fulfill his promise to redraw three state Senate district boundaries to include announced conservative challengers to incumbent moderate Republican senators. 

It’s now time for everyone to take a chill pill. This is not a game. A $2.7 million budgetary hole can be filled only by cutting almost every state agency and program, including highways, the Kansas Highway Patrol, the KBI, state prisons, health care programs and the largest budget item — education.  This is on top of the last four years of budget cuts. 

Now, I could go on to discuss the impact of these budget cuts, but let me instead propose a compromise for salvaging this legislative session and breaking the logjam.

First, Senate President Morris would shelve the Senate redistricting map that gerrymanders conservative challengers out of the districts of his moderate Republican allies. Although one can certainly understand his frustration with the governor and speaker — who are openly plotting his political demise —Morris’s Senate map is seriously flawed and represents the worst of political survival tactics. 

Second, Brownback and O’Neal would use their influence to call off the conservative groups planning to pour thousands of dollars into Republican Senate primary contests this summer. There is nothing wrong with a fair political fight in which candidates with different ideas about the role of government present their cases to primary voters.

However, with thousands of dollars waiting to be spent by the governor’s conservative allies, it turns these primary contests into unfair political battles in which the ideas from the most conservative side of this debate will drown out the right-of-center point of view. These are Washington, D.C., political warfare tactics come to roost in Kansas. Let there be a true battle of ideas and then let Republican primary voters decide.

I realize that my prescription will fall of deaf ears. The governor and House speaker are convinced that pointing this loaded political gun at the Senate president will make him and his Senate colleagues succumb to their wishes. However, playing this type of game with so much on the line represents a form of political gamesmanship this state has never seen. This is a political development that is bad for all of us. 

Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of political science at Kansas State University.


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