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Kansas Political Watchers Discuss Impact of 2016 Election

The Dole Institute of Politics (Flickr Photo by Matthew Whitehead)

The political landscape is changing at the Kansas Statehouse. When the session starts in January, more Democrats and more moderate-leaning Republicans will fill seats in the state Legislature. They’ll also face two big challenges: filling a $350 million budget hole and writing a new funding formula for public schools. Last week, lawmakers, reporters and political party officials sat down at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas to talk about the the fall election and discuss what effects it might have on the state of Kansas. Stephen Koranda reports.

To some people, the Kansas election was a referendum on Republican Governor Sam Brownback. Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, says some candidates did reference the governor in their races and in their campaign material. 
“If candidates wanted to put on their mail ‘I oppose Governor Brownback on this issue’ we had no problems with that and he didn’t, either. We asked him. Whatever it took to win,” says Barker.
But Barker says there was more at play than just the governor, whose popularity has waned considerably over the past few years. 
“A lot of the kickback in this election was people who were uncomfortable with the status quo. Maybe they were conservatives who said ‘we’re conservatives, we’re supposed to be for fiscally responsibility and not be living on the edge,'” says Barker.
During this election cycle, there was a lot of talk that the budget, taxes and education spending were on the minds of voters.
“It’s important to understand that there’s not a unitary voter,” says Republican Senator Jeff King, from Independence.
He says in his area of southeast Kansas, it came down to the issue of Medicaid expansion. Not expanding Medicaid added stress on the local hospital, which closed and took many jobs with it.
“They’re not worried about whether government’s big or small. They want government that’s stable, they want jobs, they want to be able to put food on the table and when my 88-year-old father has his fourth heart attack, they want a hospital to take him to,” says King.
This election brought in more Democrats and a lot of moderate Republicans. But KU political scientist Patrick Miller says it would be a mistake to lump all these moderates into one group.
“Republican moderates at least span the spectrum from Republicans who are pretty certifiably liberal to ones who are Bob Dole, Ronald Reagan-type center-right Republicans,” says Miller.
And moderates themselves won’t be in the majority. Associated Press reporter John Hanna says conservatives are probably the single largest faction and still have an edge in Topeka. However, on some issues it will come down to whether moderates join conservative Republicans or Democrats.
“Then the issue is the moderates become kind of the swing votes on the budget and taxes,” says Hanna.
While it looks like there are a lot of new lawmakers who want to tackle issues like taxes and the budget, don’t expect huge changes right off the bat. Democratic state Representative Annie Kuether says they’ll look at things like closing a business income tax exemption, but that won’t be enough.
“We can’t fix everything overnight. It’s going to take decades to get us out of this hole. We’re in deep, deep trouble,” says Kuether.  

Other lawmakers argue that there are pressing budget issues now, and lawmakers will have to take some steps right away. Joan Wagnon is a Democratic Party official, former revenue secretary and a former state legislator. She says the Kansas Supreme Court could soon rule that lawmakers need to add hundreds of millions of dollars more in education spending. Wagnon says that could require tough and more immediate decisions, such as increasing the state property tax.
“The only realistic way, if the court puts a gun to their head, to get enough money to fund schools is going to be to look at that statewide mill levy,” says Wagnon.
Governor Brownback and many of these new legislators may not see eye-to-eye on tax and budget issues, but Kansas GOP official Clay Barker believes the governor will work with them.
“There will be a lot of give and take. Sam Brownback, whether you like him or not, is one of the most successful politicians in Kansas history. I think he’s going to be open to different solutions,” says Barker.
That's not to say this is going to be an easy session. Senator Jeff King, who’s retiring from the Legislature, compares the coming year to the record-long session of 2015.
“I appreciate the next Legislature taking away the dubious distinction on my legislative record of having presided over the longest legislative session in history, because the next one’s going to be longer,” says King.
Kansas lawmakers have already set aside additional time to take care of state business in the coming year. They added 10 more days to the regular 90-day session.

Another political roundtable event is coming up Thursday and Friday at the Dole Institute; this one featuring staff leaders from the 2016 presidential campaigns.

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