Former Gov. Carlin, political experts predicting big changes in Kansas Legislature

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

? A group of political experts including a former Kansas governor told a gathering of public school officials Wednesday that moderate Republicans and Democrats may win a majority of seats in the Kansas Legislature Nov. 8, but they also warned of trouble ahead for the state.

“I’m very confident there will be a moderate coalition that will be in the majority, but we need it to be as large a majority as possible,” former Gov. John Carlin told a group superintendents and school board members meeting at the Kansas Association of School Boards in Topeka.

Funding for public schools has been a dominant issue in many legislative races this year, and an unusually large number of current and former teachers and other public school officials are running as candidates in those races.

Former Gov. John Carlin speaks about the 2016 legislative races at the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Lawmakers will be expected to craft a new school funding formula next year to replace the one they repealed in 2015.

In addition, this year’s elections are being held against the backdrop of a school funding lawsuit now pending before the Kansas Supreme Court, where five of the seven justices are up for retention this year, four of whom have been targeted by conservative groups for nonretention.

Conservatives have had solid majorities in the Kansas House since Gov. Sam Brownback was first elected in 2012, and they gained firm control of the Senate by ousting a number of moderates in the 2012 GOP primaries.

But with the state now facing severe budget shortfalls, which many people blame on the tax cuts that conservatives pushed through in 2012 and 2013, recent polls have shown Brownback is now extremely unpopular, and his conservative allies are facing tough re-election battles.

Many observers have expected Democrats and moderate Republicans to gain seats this year, but their chances of winning actual majorities in both chambers grew in August when several incumbent conservatives were defeated in the GOP primaries.

University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller told the group of school officials that even after conservative losses in the primaries, there are eight to 10 races in the Senate and 20-25 races in the House that he considers “truly competitive,” and most of those involve Democrats challenging incumbent conservative Republicans.

But Carlin said a moderate-Democratic coalition won’t find it easy to govern at a time when the state faces significant financial pressures and Brownback, a conservative Republican, still holds veto power.

“We’re in a hell of a fix,” Carlin said. “The hole we’re in is deep.”

Already this fiscal year, he noted, the state faces more than a $60 million revenue shortfall, and he said few candidates on the campaign trail are talking about how serious the financial problem is, or what steps will be needed to fix it.

“This campaign is not talking in detail about taxes,” he said. “The public is not aware at this point how bad things are.”

Carlin said new legislators coming into office next year face a danger of trying to move too quickly in changing the state’s tax and school funding policies, and he warned that if they are not careful, they could easily be defeated for re-election in 2018.

He also said it will take a very large majority to overcome a veto of new tax or spending plans by Brownback.

“You’ll have a governor, the same one, for the next two legislative sessions,” Carlin said. “I see no signs that he wants to go out having acknowledged that his plan didn’t work, but he was strong enough and smart enough to admit it and work with the Legislature to start turning things around. I just don’t expect that to happen.”

At age 76, Carlin has been more active in the 2016 elections than he has been for more than 20 years. A former speaker of the House, he served as governor from 1979 to 1987, and then stepped away from politics for a time.

He returned in 1994 to run for the open 2nd District congressional seat but lost badly in the “Gingrich Revolution” of that year to a new and rising Republican star at that time, Sam Brownback.

After that election, then-President Bill Clinton named him to head the National Archives, a post he held for 10 years until stepping down in 2005. He now teaches as a visiting professor and executive in residence at Kansas State University.

Meanwhile, KU’s Miller and Emporia State University political scientist Michael Smith told the school officials that Democrats and moderate Republicans probably won’t be in lock-step with one another, even on school funding issues.

Miller brushed aside one popular notion, that the two factions could team up to elect moderate leadership in the House and Senate, even if conservatives keep control of the Republican majority caucus.

“Other than wishful thinking, I have not heard anyone that I talk to (suggest that),” he said. “The answer is a solid no from everyone.”

Smith even suggested that moderate Republicans and Democrats could have trouble agreeing among themselves on some school funding issues, something he said will determine how strong of a coalition they can really form.

“To me, the issue to watch is the local option budget,” Smith said. “Some of the mod leaders are going to come out of Johnson County. They’re going to come out of some very wealthy districts, including the wealthiest districts in the state, Mission Hills and Leawood. They’re going to want a very generous local option budget so they can pour money into their own schools from property taxes.”

“Some of the Democrats are going to be representing areas where they’re going to want more to push that into the base funding formula,” he said. “If this nascent mod-Democratic coalition can get a new school base funding formula passed, and can get past the local option budget issue, then it’s a real thing.”