Every Kansas state legislative session produces its fair share of onerous bills. However, this year’s session is exceeding all quotas in terms of the sheer number and potential for far-reaching negative consequences.
Topping this list is a bill to gradually eliminate the civil-service system in most of state government, except for public safety agencies. The civil-service system was the crowning achievement of the Republican good government reformers of the early 1900s. Prior to the civil service system, government employees were chosen based on party loyalty and nepotism. Power was a function of an employee’s connection to politicians, not organizational position and expertise.
The civil service system established that state administrative, technical and managerial personnel are hired based on merit — their qualifications and expertise — not political connections.
Politics is the exercise of power and influence. Public administrators need the protections of the civil service system. It ensures that special interests wishing to escape the fair implementation of Kansas’ laws will not be able to exert undue influence on governmental personnel who administer our laws. Reform the civil service system, yes. Eliminate it, no.
Second on the list is an attempt by Secretary of State Kris Kobach—who seems to have a penchant for these types of things—to turn nonpartisan local elections into partisan elections. In addition, he would move city council elections to November when mid-term and presidential elections are held. He claims this would increase interest and participation in local elections.
Removing partisan politics from city government was another crowning achievement of the Republican good government reformers of the early 1900s. They reasoned that city governments would be run more like a business if party politics were removed. They were right.
Secretary of State Kobach is correct in one respect. Moving municipal elections to November on even numbered years will increase voter participation. But at the cost of infusing partisanship into decisions about potholes, sewers, zoning and economic development. This moves us away from running our cities in a more business-like fashion. Instead, this proposal seems to be about ensuring total Republican ideological domination of all levels of government. Poll after poll indicates that the people want less partisanship not more. Let’s listen.
Last, but certainly not least, is the charter school bill currently being considered in the Kansas Senate. A wide variety of entities, including universities, religious colleges and local school boards would be allowed to set up charter schools. While these charter schools would enjoy the same tax supported funding levels as public schools in that district, they would have to live by very few public schools’ requirements like teacher certification. Nor would locally elected school boards exercise any control.
What happened to democracy, trusting the people and local control? These ideas represent the best of Republican conservative traditions.
Moreover, if certified teachers have difficulties educating our most challenging children, I fail to see how less qualified uncertified instructors would somehow find success. Let me put it this way. If you were facing a tough medical procedure, would you choose a medically certified surgeon or a paramedic? I’m sure that a few paramedics might successfully perform the operation and would cost less. But the probability of a good outcome for you would be much diminished.
The same type of analogy applies to the licensing of electricians, attorneys, and a variety of other professionals including teachers. A positive outcome is not guaranteed with any type of licensed professional, but it is greatly enhanced.
The framers of our state constitution in 1859 did not limit the number of days that the legislature could meet. By 1875, voters had learned their lesson. They ratified an amendment to limit legislative sessions to odd years. By 1900, voters doubled-down, limiting these odd year sessions to only 90 days. Perhaps we should consider proposing one more constitutional amendment this year? How about 60 days, every four years?
Joseph A. Aistrup is a Professor of Political Science at Kansas State University.