Views From Kansas: We need better leadership

We were disappointed this week at the political strong-arm tactics and lack of leadership shown by high-ranking members of the state Senate, namely Majority Leader Jim Denning and President Susan Wagle.

Denning and Wagle temporarily stopped progress toward a school funding solution when they delivered an ultimatum to their colleagues: No debate on education funding until you approve a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the courts from the school funding equation.

We were shocked that the Senate leadership would stoop to such dictatorial tactics. Members of the Senate were shocked, as well. And it wasn’t a partisan matter.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Republican, described the actions of her party’s leadership as “the equivalent of poor parenting, making idle threats and actually attempting to bribe people for what I would call a tyrannical stance.”

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine refused to join Denning and Wagle in the ultimatum. “My way or the highway is never a good strategy,” he said.

Sen. Anthony Hensley, minority leader of the Senate, said Denning and Wagle acted like “schoolyard bullies.”

To Denning’s credit, he realized his mistake and apologized for blocking debate on school funding. He took the blame for a bad idea and said Wagle had gone along with him.

But it appears Wagle continued the strong-arm tactics, and they were motivated by politics, not by a desire to find a solution on school funding.

After the Senate developed a school funding plan, Hensley, the Senate minority leader, suggested that Wagle threatened to strip senators of committee chairmanships if they didn’t support the plan. Wagle didn’t deny Hensley’s statement.

Wagle characterized her private discussions with senators this way: “I felt like in order to keep a Republican majority in the Kansas Senate through the next election that we need to make sure we don’t force ourselves into another tax increase.”

Translated: “Saving our seats is more important than solving the school funding situation.”

Earlier in the week, Wagle complained that legislators had been “pushed into a corner” on school funding.

Actually, legislators pushed themselves into a corner by failing to take steps earlier to address school funding. Instead, members of the Republican leadership –including Wagle — pinned their hopes on a study they commissioned, believing it would say the foundation of the argument for more school funding is flawed.

The study blew up in their faces when it said Kansas schools need between $1.7 billion to $2 billion in new funding over the next five years to meet performance goals.

Make no mistake, we do not offer this commentary in support of a tax increase or of any specific school funding plan.

The point is this: We elected people like Denning and Wagle to lead.

That means they should take ownership of difficult situations, rather than seek political cover. It means they should find solutions, rather than position themselves for another term.

— Originally published in the Wichita Eagle.