They're called "postcard" issues because they can be reduced to simple statements that easily fit on a campaign postcard.
During an election year like this one, members of the Kansas Legislature face a full agenda of important statewide issues, but all of them who want to stay on the job also will face the voters in November. Knowing that it's difficult for voters to fully understand the complexities of the state budget or other mundane but vital work they do in the Legislature, they often resort to postcard issues - also often known as "hot-button issues" - to try to hit an emotional chord that will garner support from voters.
This year's postcard, for instance, may include votes on whether the state should allow undocumented immigrants who graduate from Kansas high schools to pay resident tuition at the state's post-secondary schools or whether the state should require picture identification from everyone who comes to the polls to vote. Others may focus on whether the state should change its system for appointing members of the Kansas Supreme Court or even delve into local topics like whether Lawrence should be allowed to maintain a registry of domestic partners.
It's far less likely that they will deal with difficult budget issues or complex policy items. Those are just too difficult to explain in language that fits on a postcard.
As Kansas legislators begin their 2008 session, they should be careful not to spend too much time on issues that offer ample opportunity for grandstanding but are relatively insignificant to the state often because they seek to change things that don't really need to be changed. Rather than looking to their re-election prospects, they need to look at what's best for Kansas - all of Kansas.
By the same token, voters need to take seriously their responsibility to understand not just the emotional, hot-button issues, but to delve deeper into their representatives' record on more complex issues. Planning for a solid energy future for the state is a vital issue, but it goes well beyond the single issue of whether coal-fired plants in Holcomb should be approved.
With the nation's economy struggling, legislators will face difficult budget choices this year. Public schools are always a priority, but where should additional funding be directed: All-day kindergarten? Higher teacher salaries? Tough economic times place even greater pressure on social services. Leveraging funds to provide the at-home assistance that keeps people out of costly residential facilities makes a lot of sense. Finding ways that people with mental illness can access help is more economical and humane than simply allowing local jails to become their home of last resort.
Some important issues come down to a simple "yes" or "no" answer, but most do not. Both legislators and voters need to pay more attention to the issues too complex to explain on a campaign postcard.