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Kansas Chamber a political force

Chapman Rackaway

By A Contributor

With the 2013 Kansas legislative session history, talk has turned to 2014. Gov. Sam Brownback’s re-election effort will grab most of the headlines, but other important stories will emerge. To understand the 2014 elections, we have to understand the 2012 elections in context. There was an important org-anization in the background during 2012 that will be more public by default and frame the 2014 elections: The Kansas Chamber of Commerce. 

The narrative of the 2012 primary elections was that the governor had a purge in mind and the Kansas Chamber gladly provided the resources to knock most of Team Steve Morris out of the Kansas Senate. Had the Legislature toed the governor’s line on budgets and spending in 2013, the narrative would have been supported.

But something odd happened on the way to full control: the Kansas Chamber decided to pull some strings itself. While the governor wanted to extend a sales tax increase that had been scheduled to sunset July 1, many legislators instead wanted to end the sales tax increase and cut spending even more deeply than the governor preferred. Clearly, the governor was not in the driver’s seat: the Kansas Cham-ber of Commerce was. 

Most of the targeted candi-dates in 2012 found themselves left off an important list: the Chamber’s nebulous “Pro-jobs legislators” list. If you were on it, you didn’t have to worry about a primary challenge. But find yourself off the list and someone was going to come at you from the right.

So when the Chamber released its 2013 list of “pro-jobs” legislators, it resembled the 2012 primary endorsements list. The bloc of votes that has been most consistent is the group loyal to the Chamber of Commerce more so than even to Cedar Crest. 

What does the Chamber’s list of favored legislators tell us? First, although the governor might want a glide path to zero taxes, the Chamber is willing to let the path nosedive. Caught between a bloc of cut-first, ask-questions-later representatives and a state that values spending in the right places (K-12, higher education, roads) Gov. Brown-back finds himself in an uncomfortable spot.

At least we can assume this is about taxes. Unlike most interest groups that make public en-dorsements and funnel money to campaigns, the state Chamber of Commerce does not release its list of key legislative votes or the percentage of the time each legislator voted according to the Chamber’s wishes. While the Chamber’s website says a legislator must vote at least 80 percent of the time consistent with the Chamber’s vague legislative agenda, we do not know which votes are most important or what percentage of the time each supposedly pro-jobs legislator sided with the Chamber.

When I asked Emily Mitchell, a Chamber spokes-person, for the list of votes and percentages, she re-fused even to tell me if legislators had to vote one way or another on the sales tax bill to be considered “pro-jobs.”

Instead, she said, “If legislators that are not on our pro-jobs list review their voting record, they will most likely be able to identify important votes to the business community that they did not make.”

Secrecy appears to be a growing trend in state government, both by elected officials and those who help certain individuals get elected. One thing is for sure: We will know by the filing deadline for the 2014 primary election who the Chamber supports… but not necessarily why.

Chapman Rackaway is a Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University.

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