Conservatives hold significant power as 2015 session begins

? As the 2015 legislative session gets underway Monday, conservative Republicans will enjoy an almost unprecedented level of power, giving them a unique opportunity to reshape government.

From overhauling the school finance system to changing the way state Supreme Court justices are chosen and revamping local government elections, analysts say conservative Republicans in the Kansas Legislature now have the chance to consolidate a vast amount of political power under the Legislature and governor.

“It makes sense for Governor (Sam) Brownback,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. “His philosophy from the very beginning has been that he thinks the Democrats have been able to pepper other branches with appointees and people who thwart his agenda from going through, and so he wants to have a bit of inter-branch supremacy at Cedar Crest.”

Conservatives first took control of the Legislature after the 2012 elections, Rackaway said, when Brownback and his allies backed conservative challengers in the GOP primaries and successfully unseated a number of moderate Republicans in the state Senate.

“What we saw in 2014 was a validation of the single-faction control that was granted to conservatives in 2012,” he said.

Not only did Brownback win reelection in 2014, Republicans also picked up five seats in the Kansas House, where the GOP now has a 97-28 majority over Democrats, the widest margin since the 1953-54 session.

Rep. Tom Sloan, a moderate Republican from Lawrence, said during a Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday that moderates now hold only about 23 of those 97 seats, meaning the other 74 are held by conservatives.

That’s more than enough to pass legislation in the 125-member House, where it takes a simple majority of 63 votes to pass a bill. And as long as those 74 conservatives stay unified, they would only need to find an additional 10 votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

In the Senate, the GOP has a 32-8 majority over Democrats, and conservatives have shown several times that they can muster a two-thirds majority, or 27 votes, on key issues.

Kansas University political science professor Burdett Loomis, who worked briefly in Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration, said that now puts conservatives in a unique position.

“Crucial here is not so much how the Republican right addresses specific questions, like the budget or school funding, but how it seeks to restructure state government in many ways,” Loomis said.

Loomis has written previously that political power in Kansas has traditionally been spread diffusely between state and local governments, and among various branches and agencies within state government.

But in recent years that has been the source of increasing tension as conservatives have grown in numbers in the Legislature, only to see many of their policies blocked or stymied by the courts and, to some extent, the Kansas State Board of Education.

That tension came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas Supreme Court first declared state funding for public schools unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to increase spending by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Conservatives, who then controlled a majority of the Republican caucus, but not a majority of the House as a whole, at first refused to comply. They argued that only the Legislature has the power to appropriate money, and therefore only they could determine what is adequate funding for education.

This year, another court ruling on school finance hangs over the Legislature, only this time conservatives hold a clear majority in both chambers.

“Clearly, they want to change the school funding formula and the constitutional language on equity,” Loomis said. He thinks many on the right would like to see vouchers enacted.

“In short, this would completely change the state’s approach to public education,” Loomis said.

Rackaway said he thinks the highest priority for conservatives this year will be gaining control of the judiciary by changing the way Supreme Court justices are selected.

Currently, the Kansas Constitution provides that an independent nominating committee made up mostly of lawyers screens candidates and submits three names to the governor, who then selects one.

A similar statute existed for Court of Appeals judges, but conservatives successfully changed that through legislation in 2013 so that now the governor appoints appellate court judges, subject to Senate confirmation.

“Obviously the governor wants selection of all judges to be consolidated under the governor’s office, and so that’s going to be a front-burner issue for this legislature,” Rackaway said. “They’ll get it done. They have plenty of loyalty to the governor. They share his goal on this. So I think that would be a pretty easy thing for them to get done.”

Rackaway said another major issue likely to come up this year will be moving the dates of municipal and school board elections to coincide with state and federal elections in November of even-numbered years, and possibly making them partisan races.

Currently, those offices are nonpartisan, and the local elections are held in April of odd-numbered years.

“It could certainly give the state GOP the opportunity to exercise more control over the local level,” Rackaway said. “But it also opens up the opportunity for significantly higher turnout and perhaps more attention paid to those races and issues than we see now.”

Rackaway said one thing that may moderate the urge to consolidate power is the knowledge that circumstances change, and that conservatives won’t always control the Legislature, and Brownback won’t always be the governor.

“Then all of a sudden, all of that consolidation of power under the governor’s office that Brownback wanted can be used to deconstruct everything that he has put together,” Rackaway said.

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