Archive for Monday, May 10, 2004

Analysis: Legislative leaders fail to broker key deals

School-finance fix left for after elections

May 10, 2004

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— If Kansans remember this year's legislative session at all, many will remember it as a failure.

Legislators did not approve a school-finance plan, despite the very real desire of many legislators to provide additional funds to elementary and secondary schools -- and despite the prospects of cuts in programs in many districts.

Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson, and House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, are supposed to broker deals on big issues, but they couldn't close one on school finance. They didn't so much fail as lose control of events.

In the House, a bipartisan coalition wrested control over school-finance issues from Mays.

In the Senate, Kerr led a Republican group with several cliques, the most vocal being conservatives opposed to any tax increase. The best Kerr could do was move the GOP-controlled Legislature toward a confrontation with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.

But in his final speech of the session to the House, the Mays offered hope that the 2005 Legislature could do better.

"We've had some failures, but I consider those failures short-term," he said.

Burden of leadership

The job of brokering a deal fell to Mays and Kerr because their predecessors over the past decade have given the president and speaker tremendous power in the session's final days.

Legislative rules have become so flexible that the president and speaker can virtually revive or save any issue. The process is set up to allow them to push whatever policy they want -- and keep pushing until legislators are so tired they'll vote for anything just to get home.

However, Mays lost his power in the school-finance debate in March, when a bipartisan coalition pushed a $155 million school-finance plan relying on higher sales and income taxes through the House.

Resistance to tax increases

Staff aides could be dismissive about the coalition's freshman Republicans -- dubbing them the "Romper Room" group -- but Mays remained powerless in the face of the coalition's majority.

Meanwhile, Kerr had to placate conservatives who did not want a tax increase.

In one debate, Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, contemplated which of the 80 or so employees at his automobile dealership were the ones he would have to fire if his business's costs rose because of higher taxes. The economy is too fragile, he said, and too many people already are hurting, for the Legislature to think of raising taxes.

"It's asinine for us to stand up here and ask people to cough up more money," Donovan said.

Kerr also had to deal with less conservative GOP senators who were skittish about voting for tax increases because of this year's elections.

The Senate president did what most leaders would do in such a situation: He fell back on budget trickery.

The last, $82 million plan legislators considered relied on what amounted to a payday loan. The state would have diverted transportation funds meant to support the Kansas Highway Patrol and state Division of Vehicle operations to schools in June 2005, the end of the next fiscal year, and repaid those funds in July 2005, the start of the following fiscal year.

Legislators have relied on similar schemes before. In fact, the current budget was balanced by forcing many Kansans to pay half of their annual property taxes a month early in the name of more favorable government accounting.

"There's nothing beautiful about this," Kerr acknowledged.

Opposition to such trickery from Sebelius, the bipartisan House coalition and education lobbyists frustrated Kerr, Mays and their allies. Why would anyone turn down additional money, however it was raised?

Coalition members' answer was simple. They wanted a stable and ongoing source of money for education. The best guarantee was a tax increase.

Even before the session began, the state faced the prospect of budget problems next year. Resorting to gimmicks this year could dig a deeper hole for next year.

Thus, coalition members worried, gains made this year under the $82 million plan would be surrendered. Coalition members were not comforted by reassurances that the trickery could continue indefinitely, preventing any pain.

Going home with nothing, they thought, was better than getting something and giving it up later.

"Whether you have an education plan or not, you still have to have a sound budget at the end of the day," said House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg.

Events then played out as they tend to do when the leaders who are supposed to broker deals can't. People who need to compromise don't, and no bill passes.

Legislators talked a lot about school finance this session, often with great passion, occasionally with great eloquence.

But deals -- not speeches -- create legislation.

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