KHI News Service

A New Confederacy

By | May 18, 2013

(Last of three articles)

Over the five decades leading to a new millennium, state government in Kansas had assumed a rhythm of reform and advancement.

Today it thrums with the drone of demolition.

In the past two articles, we have tried to weave together the bright and faded threads of time, periods in recent state history marked by great government achievement. From an invigorated, post World War II Kansas in the 1950s, through the dramatic welfare, tax and education reforms of the '80s and '90s, men and women in state politics were the vessels of ideas.

Photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

The Kansas House chamber, 1931.

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These ideas took form in things tangible and beneficial: a state self-immunized against polio, one of the first networks of super highways, hot lunches for schools, flood control with lakes and reservoirs, statewide school unification, our first equitable (one-man, one-vote) legislative reapportionment, enactment of a national model in public school finance. For starters.

Government had made the great difference between a Kansas that was more livable and one that was merely lived-in. The legislative, judicial and executive branches were composed of people inspired by their own hard lives, before dirt paths became roads, when kerosene not electricity lighted most homes, when schools needed good farm prices to stay open, before the enactment of standards and a gallon (of milk... gasoline...) could be 4 quarts in one town and 3½ in another, before there was running water. Before government acted to help.

That was then.

Now the generations have passed, and with them the belief in government as a benefactor.

The change has been rapid. In a decade, the composition of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives has become mostly urban and mostly young. It is a legislature largely inexperienced, heavily motivated, under-tested — all sketch and no blueprint.

“They have never been harmed,” says a veteran lobbyist with more than 30 years at the Statehouse. “They have never had anything bad happen to them, unlike their predecessors. Nobody in their family is poor, they have never been without good schooling or without a car or a cell phone. They have never been hoodwinked, politically at least. They don’t see a need for all this help.”

They seem naive, in a dangerous, arrogant way. To the newer legislators, the past achievements of government and its politics are nearly irrelevant, relics of primitive times. Government is no longer seen as a benefactor, but as an impediment. Government is an expense in need of heavy trimming.

To understand how it has come to this, we must see that for most of Kansas history, political parties had been the chief agents for the brokerage of power in government. It has been more than two decades since Robert Miller, once the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives (1971-1996), warned us that the parties were on the way out.

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Shortly after noon on January 29, 1992, in a third floor room at the Statehouse, a meeting of House Republicans adjourned in frustration: A coalition of angry insurgents had tried, unsuccessfully, to fire Miller, their minority leader, a principled and selfless legislator in his 22nd year as a member of the House. (He would serve two more two-year terms.)

Photo courtesy Kansas Historical Society.

Robert Miller, former Kansas representative from Wellington (1971-1996).

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At the time, this attempted coup told volumes about the party’s loss of control, its frailty in an irony of time and events: Miller, after all, was the House minority leader. Republicans two years earlier had lost control of the House – by one seat, 63-62, but nonetheless they had lost.

The surge of young conservatives against Miller had erupted on Kansas Day, of all times, a traditional moment for Republicans to coat a celebration of statehood with the party’s festival of power, its traditional dominance in local and statewide elections, its majorities in the state legislature, its iron hold on the executive branch and congressional delegation.

The coup had signaled a shift, exposing a weakness. A legislative mission – solving substantive problems – was being lost in a swarm of coalitions moved more by special interest than common purpose.

Miller and his colleagues, including Democrat Marvin Barkis, the charismatic Speaker of the House, would represent the last of generations who understood one truth in their savage political culture: that in a modern industrial society, all individual effort must be braced by a government that guarantees, at least, opportunities for those who want to work, food for those who would otherwise starve, pensions for the old and medical care for the sick.

This is what had moved earlier generations in Kansas government. It is what had inspired decades of reform and advancement. The legislative, executive and judicial branches had believed that government should make life more rewarding for its citizens.

All that had begun to change.

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The shifting sources of power in government can be seen first in the struggles for political leadership, and later in the new power of special interest groups. And as the special interests grew in number and finance, so did their corps of academics, thinkers, economists and ruminant idea brokers. They were developing the look and feel of political parties themselves; some of them would, in effect, become parties.

Republican Gov. Mike Hayden, elected in 1986, had been a disaster, mishandling a long list of issues, most involving taxation. His failure to manage a crisis in public school finance — triggered by horrendous property tax increases — was a prime signal that his tenure as governor would be limited to one term.

Democrats in 1988 and 1990 had gained 12 seats in the House for their 63-62 majority. In the Senate, Republicans held a slim 22-18 margin. Hayden lost his bid for reelection in 1990 to Joan Finney, a populist Democrat who had served two popular terms as state treasurer.

But the attempted coup against Miller visited a question of control: Had random coalitions replaced the political parties and their leaders as the incubators of power at the Statehouse?

“There is no party discipline because the party is not involved in getting people elected any more,” Miller had said. “Legislators are elected on their own energy, with organizations they put together themselves. Where the money comes from, where the workers come from, that’s all changed.”

Republicans regained a majority in the House in 1993, Miller survived and was elected Speaker, but beneath a veneer of renewed Republican supremacy, rebels — they were actually called “rebels” — began to grow in number and voice.

The rebels were fresh, ardent supply-side, fiscal conservatives determined to cut taxes and re-shape state spending. Many of them were devout anti-abortionists. Nearly all were painted as “social conservatives,” a term embraced by the press.

One of them, Rep. Kerry Patrick, a sharp and energetic idealist from Overland Park, sponsored a bill demanding sterilization implants for welfare mothers. His plan landed him a full segment on the CBS documentary program, “60 Minutes.”

But many pro-life legislators were Democrats, Catholic and fiscally moderate if not liberal; thus, the “social conservative” label was never applied to a Democrat. Without them, though, Republicans could not pass strong anti-abortion legislation.

Abortion was among the first examples of an issue taking the form and power of a political party.

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As the millennium turned, the engines of advancement and reform slowed nearly to an idle. The school finance law, riddled with amendments, was in remission; each year, more funding for schools was shifted back to local districts and away from Topeka. There were continuing legal challenges.

Other reforms — in telecommunications, aid to the poor and mentally ill, in governmental ethics and campaign finance — were watered down with new exceptions and exemptions.

By 2010, the population shifts in two federal censuses demanded more legislative reapportionment; the allotment of power shifted even more to urban and suburban districts. Nearly two-thirds of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives would be elected by voters in six metropolitan counties: Shawnee, Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Douglas in the northeast, and Sedgwick in south-central Kansas.

Steve Morris, former Kansas Senate President, from Hugoton (1993-2012).

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After Brownback’s election as governor, there was legislative resistance to his sharp conservative agenda. The governor’s chief of staff resigned in 2012 to organize and manage primary election campaigns to defeat eight incumbent Republican senators critical of the governor’s agenda. Six of the incumbents, including the Senate President, were unseated by Brownback loyalists, whose campaigns were heavily financed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and conservative cause lobbies funded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Veteran legislators were leaving, some voluntarily if reluctantly. They took with them the experience, institutional memory and personal histories that had inspired their legislation and enlivened their commitment. Elections had become too arduous, campaigns too bitter, the legislative process too vindictive.

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Younger legislators were arriving from the cities and suburbs, products of a world of material wealth, the landscapes of entitlement. People no longer wondered where the good roads would come from, they already had them. There were no questions about the quality of air or water because there was plenty of both. Their schools were new, the plumbing worked at home and there were iPhones for all. Health care and poverty were not a problem, not where they lived.

The issue, as they were instructed, was government — its size, its expense. The coalitions to which they belonged told them so. The complexity and anguish of modernization had come to clash with theories of a simpler life, a less expensive government, one with no taxation.

The American Protestant culture that had dominated American politics until 1932 was returning to Topeka, carried by a new conservative coalition led by Brownback. It is moved by the credo that man is responsible directly before God for his conscience and his acts, without the intercession of government. Thus, men and women — and cities, counties and school districts — are responsible for their own lives, and must strive (themselves) to make them rewarding.

In the past year, the legislature has moved to dismantle many of the footings supporting beneficence in Kansas government, and to sever the interconnections among local, state and federal components. For one example, the governor in 2011 turned down $31.5 million in federal aid to help establish a state health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, a new federal law; Kansas must now pay for the exchange, a federal requirement.

Gov. Sam Brownback during his 2013 State of the State address.

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Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, during Gov. Sam Brownback's State of the State address.

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Brownback has made it clear that Kansans must renounce the past. Each year we — like Nebraskans and Oklahomans, Californians and people in every other state — had wanted, needed and asked for more from Washington and from Topeka. We did this in the name of better schools and highways, help for the poor, the elderly, the sick. Airports and railroads, endowments for the arts, communities stricken with disaster, farmers and hundreds of other groups and causes were among benefactors of state and federal aid.

Far from being a state of independents, the governor intones, we have become a nourisher of dependency.

This must stop, Brownback believes.

Thus his plan for a state with no income taxes; a state that rejects (some) federal aid; a state with legislation that squashes federal gun laws, dismantles revenue sharing for cities and counties, abolishes the Kansas Turnpike Authority, revokes paycheck dues collection by teacher unions, gives the governor sole authority to appoint appellate judges, and strikes most prohibitions from the state’s open meetings law.

The legislature and governor have established the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, which allows people to skirt state and local laws or regulations if enforcement would violate a “sincerely-held religious tenet or belief.”

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Self-reliance, the governor’s legislature believes, begins with cutting allowances, including this year:

  • $25 to $30 million from the state’s six universities;
  • $35 million from funding for other higher education institutions;
  • $13 million from the University of Kansas Medical Center;
  • $168 million from counties’ motor vehicle tax revenues;
  • $500,000 from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission;
  • $500,000 from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks’ cabin rental fund. (The department, which is under orders to become financially self-sufficient, had been accruing the money to pay for maintenance projects.)
  • $20 million taken from the Kansas Insurance Department’s regulatory fee fund and deposited in the State General Fund; and
  • $5 million from the southwest Kansas oil and gas depletion trust fund, into the general fund.

Abolishing an income tax is expensive. Most of these cuts are to recover revenues lost to reducing the state income tax.

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This and more are in view of the governor’s demands that the state not meddle in affairs best left to individuals, such as paying higher property taxes or higher college tuition or automobile taxes. Nor would government encourage local entities to seek state aid.

A form of confederacy seems envisioned, a state composed of self-reliant regions that provide local solutions to local problems, local taxes for local budgets, with less provided and less required from Topeka.

Can we afford it? Can a league of independent, self-governing regions replace the unified government once embraced in Topeka? Can the governor and his legislature abandon the old ways and dismantle the achievements of the past six decades?

Time — and politics — will tell.

→ Part 1: When Government Worked for Kansas

→ Part 2: The ’80s, Carlin’s Legacy and Beyond

John Marshall, owner-editor of the Lindsborg News-Record.

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John Marshall, a native Kansan, has been writing about Kansas government and politics for more than 40 years; much of that time (1970-1997) included assignments as a Statehouse correspondent or as an editor for the Harris Group newspapers. He is a former owner-editor of the Lindsborg News-Record (2001-2012), and continues to write a weekly column for that newspaper.

The opinions in the columns solely reflect those of the author. They aren't endorsed by the Kansas Health Institute, which seeks a broad range of opinion to stimulate discussion.