Democrats hope to play a stronger role during the next session of the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature, say area Democratic legislators.
Outnumbered in the Kansas Legislature and without a voice in the governor's office, Kansas Democrats have been on hard times for two years.
But that could change next year, says newly-elected Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley.
"I feel like we'll be more pro-active and relevant to the legislative process in the Senate," said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat whose district includes western and southern Douglas County.
The 13 Democrats in the 40-member Senate met last week to elect their leader.
They picked Hensley over current Minority Leader Jerry Karr, R-Emporia, on a vote of 8-5.
Across the statehouse, House Democrats were also having similar elections, but House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, retained his seat.
During those leadership elections, Rep. Barbara Ballard was elected to chair the Democratic caucus.
Ballard said that last year, House Democrats, with 44 members, used the moderate-conservative split in the GOP to their advantage.
"We combined a lot of our efforts with moderate Republicans," she said. "We have been actively participating in the legislative process and I think we will continue to do that."
Ballard said one of her new jobs is to work with the 12 new Democratic legislators elected this year to help them understand the process.
Her duties also include making sure House Democrats get information they need about the bills up for debate and making sure the 48 members understand how the bills will affect their constituents.
"You work on your unity and try to make sure that people are on the same page," Ballard said. "If you're not up to speed on what's going on, it makes it harder for you to follow the procedures."
GOP conflict expected
Ballard and Hensley take over their positions when the Legislature convenes Jan. 13.
Hensley said he campaigned for his post with the message that the Democratic caucus should become more active and challenge Republican Gov. Bill Graves and Republican legislators.
"I feel that way especially at a time when the Republican majority will be divided among themselves and in potential conflict with Gov. Graves on many issues over the next four years," Hensley said.
The GOP conflict was evident when the 27 Republican senators met to pick the Senate president and majority leader, Hensley said. Moderate Republicans were able to maintain control of both seats, but conservatives showed their strength during those close elections, Hensley said.
"I think we will be the political force that's more or less in the middle of two different factions," Hensley said. "I think too, our role will be more significant from the standpoint that we will be holding the Republican majority and Gov. Graves accountable for their actions and inactions."
'People programs' pushed
Hensley said he wants to develop a Democratic agenda during a pre-session Democratic caucus the first week of January.
That agenda "clearly defines the differences between us and the Senate Republican majority."
He said among the topics covered will be what should be done about property taxes and an emphasis on funding "people programs" in the state budget.
Democrats will also advocate a budget process that would put all the spending proposals into one large bill.
Conservative Republicans had pushed for such a bill in the past as a better way to control overall spending. Democrats see the single-bill method as an easier way to shift money from one part of the budget to another part of the budget, Hensley said.
"We're going to work within the budget and try to shift the funding to priorities that are more people related," he said.
For example, Democrats would find it easier politically to call for shifting money from the department of commerce budget to higher education, rather than for advocating a stand-alone higher education spending bill, he said.
"Democrats have always been accused as the tax and spend liberals. We can shift those dollars without people criticizing us that it's just increasing funding," Hensley said. "That will be a different philosophy for us."
Democrats will also have in their agenda a proposal for campaign finance reform, he said.
Democrats are also in a better position to talk about highway funding than many Republicans, he said. That's because many Republican legislators signed the no tax increase pledge promoted by the Kansas Taxpayers Network during the last election, he said.