As the Kansas Legislature begins its 2004 session, politics seems to be playing the starring role.
Officials in the Sebelius administration outlined a status quo Kansas budget for state journalists Monday morning, but the governor chose to keep her school finance plan under wraps until making her public State of the State address Monday night. Her representatives said she didn't want to give anyone a chance to comment on the plan before the public heard her televised speech.
It's an unusual move, but perhaps not unexpected, given the current political climate. Even before seeing what the plan entailed, legislative leaders were declaring it dead, saying they preferred to take no dramatic action on school finance until the state has a chance to appeal Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock's ruling that the current finance formula is unconstitutional.
Although school finance isn't the only topic that will come before the Legislature this year, it is expected to be a dominant issue and serves as a good example of how political agendas could play a disruptive role in the current session. The extent to which our state lawmakers put politics above sound decision-making will be interesting, and perhaps disturbing, to watch.
Both parties have their eye on next November, when all the Kansas House and Senate seats will be up for election. Most Republican legislators appear to want to tie their re-election hopes to being able to tell voters they didn't raise their taxes. This puts them at odds with Democratic legislators and the Democratic governor, who are expressing willingness to raise taxes to help raise funding for K-12 schools.
It's a cynical game. The governor does her part by proposing a school finance plan. She may believe the package philosophically is the right thing for the state, but politically, there is no question it's the right strategy. If the package passes, Democrats can point to what they have done for the state. If, as predicted, it fails, they can blame Republicans. Everyone in favor of education should vote for Democratic legislative candidates.
The majority of Republicans reportedly don't want a school finance package that includes a tax increase. Any such plan that becomes law, they say, would be a Democratic plan. Of course, the passage of a "Democratic plan" in such a Republican-dominated Legislature would be highly unlikely. If, by some stretch of the imagination, such a plan passes, Republicans can blame Democrats for the higher taxes needed to pay for it. If, as seems more likely, it fails, they can say they have saved Kansans from a tax increase. Everyone should vote for Republican legislative candidates.
Apply similar logic to other issues that will come before the Legislature in the next three months, and it's easy to see why the results from some sessions are so disappointing.
Is it our imagination, or was there a time, not that long ago, when state legislators were more willing to cross party lines if they thought it would result in actions that would benefit the state as a whole? Instead of measuring every issue according to political losses and gains, they looked at how the compromises they might forge could make life better for Kansans.
A lot has been written recently about widening divisions in America and a rising prevalence of people taking a "what's-in-it-for-me" approach to decision-making. Wouldn't it be nice if state lawmakers could be among the first to turn that trend around and work harder to set win-win policies rather than focusing on winner-take-all politics?