Coalition of Kansas Democrats and moderate Republicans shows its strength

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

? Many people wondered after the 2016 elections whether Democrats and moderate Republicans had gained enough seats in the Kansas Legislature to form a governing coalition that could override conservatives who had dominated both chambers for the previous four years.

That question was answered, at least to some extent, with the quick passage Thursday and Friday of a $1 billion tax package that reverses course on many of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature tax policies.

In the House, it took less than five minutes on Wednesday to debate the bill and bring it to a preliminary roll call vote, where it initially received 83 yes votes, just one shy of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto. A few of those yes votes peeled off overnight, but it still passed on final action, 76-48.

The following day in the Senate, debate on the bill lasted a little longer, just over an hour and a half. But in the end, it passed, 22-18, with half of those yes votes coming from freshman senators who were just elected in November, many of them moderate Republicans who took over seats formerly held by conservatives.

Rep. Jene Vickrey, a conservative from Louisburg who served as majority leader the previous two years, said he has noticed a palpable difference in the House this year, much of it stemming from the state’s budget crisis, which was a central issue in the 2016 campaigns.

“This budget problem, year after year being in a budget deficit, has caused the Legislature to act on it,” he said. “But I don’t know if it’s an over-reaction.”

Democrats and moderate Republicans alike, however, caution that people should not read too much into the votes on that one bill because the coalition they have formed probably won’t hold together on all issues.

“We haven’t had enough time to find out,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier, of Mission Hills, one of the moderate Republican freshmen who supported the tax bill.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, agreed, saying, “I think there are like minds on both sides, of reasonable Democrats and reasonable Republicans, but it’s an issue-by-issue situation.”

And Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, a moderate who is now the new majority leader, was careful after the House vote about even using the word “coalition.”

“I don’t know that I’d characterize it as a coalition,” he said. “It’s obviously a bipartisan bill. The final vote count was 40 Republicans and 36 Democrats, so obviously pretty well balanced between the two parties.”

For years, the Democratic and moderate Republican factions have had more in common with each other than either had in common with conservative Republicans, especially on bread-and-butter issues like tax policy and education funding and, to a degree, on social issues like abortion and concealed-carry gun rights.

During Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration, the two sides worked together frequently, most notably during the special session of 2005 when they banded together in the House to force through a major increase in school funding, over the objection of conservative leaders in the House, in response to a Kansas Supreme Court order that threatened to shut down public schools.

But the relationship has also been tenuous at times, with neither side fully trusting the other.

That was evident in Democratic caucus meetings before the votes took place, where many rank-and-file members questioned whether moderates would follow through. If they didn’t, some feared, they would be left alone supporting a large tax increase, and that would be used against them in the 2018 elections.

Others talked about holding to the tactic Democrats had used in the past by arguing that Republicans had created the tax problems in 2012, and therefore Republicans should be the only ones having to go on record voting to reverse those tax cuts.

One even asked rhetorically why Democrats shouldn’t “let them swing.”

But Ward, who was chosen as minority leader this year over former leader Rep. Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, urged his caucus not to go that route.

“I understand that sentiment, but ultimately two things play,” he said during an interview after the House vote. “One is, this time people ran, both on the moderate Republican side and on the Democrats’ side, (saying) that the state’s in a fiscal crisis, and we want to put the state before partisan politics. We’re going to go up there and fix it, and we’re going to reverse Brownback’s tax experiment and we’re going to begin reinvesting in essential services that you’re communicating you want.”

The other reason, Ward said, is that he doesn’t believe refusing to engage with Republicans is a winning strategy.

“I think that’s incredibly irresponsible, and it has caused a lot of the anger and dissension that’s going on in D.C. now, making it dysfunctional at a level that’s historic,” he said. “It produced Donald Trump.”

There was some leeriness on the Senate side as well, especially after only one Republican crossed party lines Thursday to vote for the Democrats’ plan for a $1.2 billion tax package.

On Friday, two Democrats — Marci Francisco, of Lawrence, and David Haley, of Kansas City — withheld their votes until they were sure there was a sufficient number of Republicans voting yes to ensure the bill’s passage.

Ward said there have been times in the past when Democrats thought moderate Republicans would team up with them, and didn’t. But he said that was largely because of their small numbers at the time and a different style of leadership in the House.

“Under the (Ray) Merrick and (Mike) O’Neal reigns, it was a much more punitive place,” he said. “It was a much more harsh environment, and there were fewer mods and fewer Dems.”

Moderates, meanwhile, have sometimes complained that Democrats court them during legislative sessions, but their cooperation does not prevent Democrats from challenging moderates in the next election.

Bollier, who served three terms in the House before running for an open Senate seat in 2016, was among those who faced a tough Democratic opponent in 2016. But she insisted that no hard feelings carried over into the 2017 session.

“Elections are elections, and everybody wants their group to have the majority,” she said. “I think it could be done differently, but in Kansas, because we have moderates, conservatives and Democrats, it puts a little wrench in things. That’s the bottom line.”

Ward said there are a half dozen or so issues coming up this session, starting with writing a new school funding formula, where he thinks Democrats and moderate Republicans will work together. But he said that doesn’t mean they’re working together as a single unit on all issues.

“When there are opportunities to hold the Republicans accountable, we’re going to do that,” he said. “But when there are opportunities to make positive changes to benefit the people of Kansas, we’re going to do that also.”