Topeka Reflecting on Gov. Mark Parkinson’s first days in office, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said, “I think he has been well-received by the Republican Party.”
That may sound strange coming from a Democratic legislator about a Democratic governor, but Kelly said her comment was meant to be positive.
“He wants to get things done, and he wants to work with people that will get you there,” regardless of party affiliation, she said.
In a short time, Parkinson has made an impression after having served as lieutenant governor in the shadow of his predecessor, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who was selected by President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
After Sebelius was confirmed April 28, Parkinson became the state’s 45th governor.
Within days of taking office, Parkinson shocked the Kansas political world by announcing a settlement with Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build a coal-fired power plant. Sebelius had fought Sunflower through two legislative sessions and four vetoes, with Parkinson serving as her administration’s point man in warning about global warming and denouncing carbon dioxide emissions.
And just days after signing the Sunflower deal, Parkinson bid goodbye to the Legislature after it closed a $328 million budget deficit to end the legislative session. The plan contains a mix of spending cuts and revenue-raising measures, though not a general tax increase.
“I’m not sure you could have a better first week,” said Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University.
Environmentalists, however, saw Parkinson’s flexibility on coal as a sell-out. And some Democrats were upset over how quickly Parkinson backed off his call for more revenue enhancements to prop up a shaky state budget.
Parkinson defied political considerations again last week when he appointed his chief of staff, Troy Findley, as lieutenant governor, and Findley announced he would not seek elective office in 2010. Many Democrats had thought the lieutenant governor slot could have boosted the chance of an up-and-coming candidate.
A unique situation
The timing of Parkinson’s ascension and his political backstory are unprecedented in Kansas history.
He became governor just as the Legislature was starting its wrap-up session — a potentially explosive period that had already been stoked by two earlier and painful rounds of budget cuts.
In addition, Parkinson, 51, is politically unique. He spent most of his political career as a Republican legislator and then chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. During that time, he was often at war with the conservative bloc in his own party.
In 2006 he switched to the Democratic Party to run with Sebelius, prompting angry words from Republicans and some suspicion among Democrats.
With Sebelius leaving, Parkinson found himself facing a Legislature dominated by the party he turned his back on with none of the long-standing relationships that Sebelius enjoyed in the Democratic Party.
Parkinson has announced he has no plans to run for governor, so that gives him about 19 months in the state’s top office, finishing out Sebelius’ term.
The coal case
At this point, his tenure will undoubtedly be judged, at least in part, on signing a deal with Sunflower Electric that will allow the Hays-based company to build an 895-megawatt coal-burning power plant in return for legislation aimed at increasing wind energy in Kansas.
Sebelius opposed the project when Sunflower wanted to build two 700-megawatt plants.
But almost immediately upon gaining the governor’s office, Parkinson sought out Sunflower to reach what he called a compromise. In return for one 895-megawatt plant, Sunflower would agree to CO2 offsets, and the Legislature would adopt so-called green provisions that would increase wind and solar energy.
Environmentalists called the deal a total surrender on Parkinson’s part, saying the carbon dioxide offsets were specious, and a change in law limiting the state’s ability to enforce environmental standards was dangerous. Bottom line, they said, the project will add 6.7 million tons of CO2 in the atmosphere, and mostly to provide electricity to customers in Colorado.
But others said the settlement earned him political capital with Republicans, who, in addition to holding significant majorities in the Legislature, almost overwhelmingly supported Sunflower’s efforts.
“He has moved us beyond politics,” said Rep. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, in praising Parkinson’s Sunflower decision.
“The governor has dedicated himself to resolving controversial issues like this, and making deals so that we can move forward. I have the greatest respect for him,” said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, always had a good relationship with Sebelius, except over the coal plant issue. Morris was an adamant supporter of Sunflower.
“Certainly on energy, there really is no comparison,” he said. “The new governor stepped up and really helped us get to the end of the session.”
But still some Democrats privately complained that Parkinson should have spent some of that political capital on the coal deal to squeeze more revenue enhancements out of the Republicans to reduce the size of budget cuts to education and social services.
However, Kelly, the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget-writing committee, disagreed. “The budget was a bipartisan effort. Democrats were involved and it was as good as we were going to get.”
In his address to the Legislature, Parkinson called on lawmakers to delay the phase-out of certain tax cuts and decouple the state tax code from federal tax breaks.
The business lobby balked at such a proposal and Parkinson didn’t put up a fight.
But Parkinson said the reason he didn’t defend his proposal was because better ideas came forward, such as a tax amnesty plan, and reducing the time period allowed to seek sales tax refunds.
“Legislators and our Cabinet officials came up with some terrific ideas, all of which eliminated the need to delay the tax cuts,” the governor said.
And he was quick to urge the Legislature to abandon plans put out by House Republican leaders to cut state employee pay by 5 percent.
Through his early statements, Parkinson has made sure to spread praise around to legislative leaders — Republican and Democratic alike — while also calling for an end to partisanship, noting the difficult times that many Kansans face.
Between now and the next session, Parkinson said he wants to focus on the Kansas economy, which he believes is starting to rebound.
“My view is always more optimistic than most people I know,” he said. “I tend to see glasses not as half-full. I tend to see them as overflowing.”