Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, serves as president of the Kansas Senate, first elected to that post in 2012 and re-elected last December. She has served in the Legislature for more than one-quarter of a century, elected to the House in 1990, before moving to the Senate in 2000.
For most of her legislative career Wagle has been aligned with the radical right faction of Kansas Republicans. In 2006, she served as national chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group dominated by corporate interests and dedicated to cutting income taxes to promote growth. She has been consistently endorsed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which champions the elimination of state income taxes in Kansas.
Wagle has voted on numerous occasions for measures designed to save Brownback’s tax experiment. By supporting a five-year string of unbalanced budgets that has mired the state in red ink. By increasing sales taxes in 2013 and again in 2015. And by authorizing record-breaking highway and pension debt in 2015.
However, once Kansas voters became aware of this financial disaster, Wagle’s tune began to change. Instead of marching arm in arm with Brownback and her ideological patrons, she started calling for “tax fairness” and rectifying inequities that flowed from the governor’s tax experiment.
Wagle showed newfound independence by distancing herself from the unpopular governor and blaming him personally for the mismanagement of state finance. She stopped criticizing state court decisions on school finance. After the August primary election she persuaded centrist Republicans who had trounced her former far-right allies that she would lead the Senate in securing fairer taxes and balancing the budget.
Wagle followed through on that commitment early in the current legislative session by moving a tax bill quickly to the Senate floor. Once there, however, she voted against the bill that passed by a good margin. A few days later she opposed the attempt to override Brownback’s veto of the bill, which fell short by three votes. She then pushed a “flat tax” bill that garnered only two votes beyond her own.
Wagle is better positioned than any other state lawmaker, including the governor, to steer her colleagues in resolving the thorny issues of taxes and school finance and to bring this legislative session to a successful conclusion. She does face daunting political obstacles: a reluctant governor clinging to his legacy and her own caucus split down the middle between centrists and far-right ideologues.
At the same time her course forward has become increasingly clear. A tax bill that passed with large legislative majorities in both chambers provides the logical vehicle for advancing tax fairness and balancing the budget. Wagle’s own vote plus those of her majority leader and tax chair could provide the margin needed to override the governor’s veto and restore sustainable state finance.
A bill patterned after the school finance legislation of 1992 and adjusted to address the recent court order is expected to emerge shortly from a House committee. That bill will be headed to the Senate soon and will most likely require override votes to be enacted into law. Those votes can only be found in the bipartisan alignment on the tax bill.
Wagle has a unique opportunity to lead lawmakers in addressing the state’s financial dilemmas. Kansans will soon learn whether she will act in their best interests and demonstrate her fitness for higher office. Or will she revert to her ideological past for short-term political advantage?
— H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.