Politics haunted the Senate's debate on education funding last week, contributing to senators' failure to approve a plan for increasing aid to public schools.
The debate gave Sen. Jim Barnett of Emporia a chance to showcase a key part of his platform in his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor: a plan to phase in a $495 million increase in school spending over four years. A majority of Republicans seemed willing to help him by backing the plan.
But Democrats weren't about to help Barnett, and most of them favored a three-year, $633 million plan approved by the House and endorsed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat seeking her second term this year. Not surprisingly, few Republicans joined them.
Caught in the crossfire was a bill containing a three-year, $724 million plan, a modified version of one drafted by Senate leaders of both parties. It now appears to be a bipartisan measure without enough bipartisan support to pass.
The Senate's failure to approve a plan left the school finance debate in disarray as legislators began their annual spring break. It also significantly slowed and complicated efforts to deal with Kansas Supreme Court mandates and increased the odds of a special session this summer.
"It was all gubernatorial politics," said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.
In the Supreme Court's view, as expressed in past orders, politics aren't supposed to determine what schools receive. The court ruled last year that legislators had failed to live up to their constitutional duty to provide adequate funds and to distribute the money fairly.
Legislators increased aid by $290 million, more than 10 percent, past $3 billion a year. The court said the increases were acceptable "for interim purposes," and lawmakers commissioned a study to guide this year's work. Released in January, it said the state needed to spend at least $400 million more a year.
Of course, it's not unusual for a governor's race to become part of the legislative dynamic on many issues. Allies want to burnish an incumbent's record, while opponents hope that forcing some issues to a vote or blocking legislation will create political problems.
But Barnett's candidacy makes the influence of politics more intense in the Senate.
As a candidate, Barnett must demonstrate to voters that he's a credible alternative to Sebelius and show them that electing him will make a significant difference in setting policy.
(There is a danger here in treating Barnett as the presumed GOP nominee when he's in a crowded primary race. His five announced opponents include former House Speaker Robin Jennison of Healy and Ken Canfield, author and founder of the National Center for Fathering, of Overland Park.)
Barnett structured his school finance plan so the state could afford it without raising new revenues. He left room to cut individual and corporate income taxes and eliminate estate taxes, measures he contends will stimulate economic activity.
His plan will work, at least into 2010, if the economy grows enough. The same can't be said for other proposals.
He has made much of Sebelius backing the larger House plan while supporting expanded gambling and suggested last week she was trying to create a budget hole that only state-owned casinos and slot machines at dog and horse tracks could fill.
As for his plan, he said, "It had nothing to do with the governor's race."
Even some Republicans are skeptical of such a declaration. During debate, Barnett used oversized charts to bolster his points - something rare, if not unprecedented, on the Senate floor.
Seventeen fellow Republicans supported Barnett's bill and not the other two. They included the chamber's most conservative members, who have criticized the court and suggested in the past that schools don't need such large funding increases.
"The charts and the graphs and the full-fledged campaign speech - that was a surprise," said Schodorf, who didn't support Barnett's plan.
Still, even some Democrats hesitated to criticize Barnett simply for pushing his agenda. Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington, said an incumbent governor had opportunities to seek political advantages.
"The challengers are interested in the same opportunity," Lee said. "In the 18 years I've been here, I've seen that happen a number of times, and that's just what one anticipates."
No Democrat supported Barnett's plan. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, suggested it strayed too far from the January study's recommendations to find favor with the Supreme Court.
But Democrats have a big stake in protecting Sebelius, and throughout the session they have regularly answered Barnett's speeches when issues are debated.
"The dynamics of the gubernatorial race are making it more difficult to reach compromise, middle ground, on a big issue like school finance," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.
But those dynamics will be part of the legislative calculus as long as Barnett is running and as long as Democrats are determined to protect Sebelius - in short, as long as there's air to breathe in the Statehouse.