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Archive for Monday, May 20, 2002

Democrats had their reasons for holding up session

May 20, 2002

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— Democrats had plenty of attitude during the Legislature's long wrapup.

They didn't hide their grumpiness over being blamed by majority Republicans for holding up the end of the session, eventually the longest in Kansas history at 106 days.

House Democrats faced particularly strong criticism when the chamber struggled with passing a package of tax increases to fill a budget hole. GOP leaders said the House Democrats refused to help govern, were vague about what they wanted and planned to vote against everything.

And the session would have been shorter perhaps by a few days or more if they had been more accommodating

But Democrats had reasons for not being more accommodating; some, political; some, personal. They also had a serious disagreement with Republicans about tax policy.

"Was it worth it?" said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. "The debate over this was worth the price of democracy."

If the problems facing the Legislature were difficult, they weren't complicated.

By May 1, legislators faced a gap approaching $800 million between expected revenues and required spending for the state's 2003 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Legislators either had to find more money, spend less or a combination of both.

Early in their wrapup, lawmakers approved a $4.4 billion budget for fiscal 2003 but left it about $290 million short of balancing.

That budget suggested that legislators, collectively, weren't willing to cut enough spending to avoid tax increases.

Even though Gov. Bill Graves and legislative leaders concluded tax increases were necessary, Democrats provided few of the votes two of the 22 in the Senate and eight of the 63 in the House for the final package, worth $252 million.

"If they'd been getting any help at all from the Democrats in the House, this would have been over with a lot sooner," said Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson.

But Democrats were inclined to let Republicans work out the budget problems on their own.

They viewed the budget problems as the GOP's mess, caused by the financial mismanagement of Graves and large GOP majorities in both chambers. Republicans noted that many states were suffering and pointed to the slumping economy, especially since Sept. 11.

Democrats also felt abused by a lengthy legislative redistricting process. Last year, when it started, Republicans suggested that Democrats would fare as well as GOP mercy would allow.

"The message was, 'We don't need the Democrats,"' said Rep. Marti Crow, D-Leavenworth, during one caucus meeting.

Democrats also argued they were left out of budget and tax negotiations, that proposals such as higher income taxes for wealthy Kansans and more legalized gambling were ignored.

"They're not even listening," Rep. Bob Grant, D-Cherokee, complained during one caucus.

Republican leaders insist Democrats wouldn't be pinned down on the specifics for any package.

"I think we could have been out of here substantially earlier if Democrats had joined with us in a true dialogue," said House Speaker Kent Glasscock, R-Manhattan.

Republicans suspected Democrats were trying to help their presumed gubernatorial nominee, Insurance Commissioner Kathleen, by making the GOP seem unable to handle governing. The same chaos could have helped Democratic legislative candidates, too.

Privately, Democratic staffers gave another reason. In years past, they said, Democrats provided the votes for tax increases, only to see Republican candidates beat up their incumbents, despite a heavy GOP influence on the policy being attacked. Those experiences bred distrust.

Finally, though, tax policy itself was an issue.

Republicans didn't want to increase income taxes, fearing that it would stymie economic growth and would be political suicide. Democrats insisted that Kansans would accept such increases, if the burden fell on the wealthy.

So, yes, Democrats were the most dedicated obstructionists of legislative session, particularly in the House.

But they had their reasons.

It will be up to voters this fall to determine whether those reasons were good enough.

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