Kansas Statehouse’s ‘Big Three’ tied to controversial council

? Kansas’ “Big Three” in the Statehouse are closely connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a controversial group that has been under fire for pushing a corporate agenda in state legislatures nationwide.

Newly elected Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and newly elected House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, are members of ALEC’s board of directors.

In 2010, Merrick was named ALEC’s legislator of the year, and Wagle served as the group’s national chairwoman in 2006.

And Gov. Sam Brownback is also closely affiliated with the group. In 2011, Brownback wrote a foreword to ALEC’s annual report, “Rich States, Poor States,” which is written by economist Art Laffer, whom Brownback hired as a $75,000 consultant on Kansas’ tax-cutting plan.

Brownback has also signed into law ALEC-inspired bills, such as the Health Care Freedom Act, which prohibits the government from interfering “with a resident’s right to purchase health insurance or with a resident’s right to refuse to purchase health insurance.” The law was aimed at blocking the new federal health reform law, which ALEC opposes.

ALEC describes its mission as promoting free markets, limited government, federalism and individual freedom “through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government and general public.”

But its critics, most notably the Center for Media and Democracy, say ALEC’s goal is to get state legislatures to adopt legislation for corporate interests, including Kansas-based Koch Industries, which helps fund ALEC.

ALEC has been at the center of controversy for pushing laws benefiting corporations, voter ID requirements and so-called “stand your ground” laws, which were cited in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teen. In the past year, some of ALEC’s largest corporate members have broken ties with the organization.

In Kansas, approximately two dozen legislators, all Republicans, have been active in ALEC, going to its meetings, serving in leadership positions on its board and returning to Kansas with model legislation that they then start pushing through the legislative process. Most of those expenses have been funded through ALEC, which collects money from corporations.

Wagle and Merrick have been longtime participants in ALEC and defenders of its work. On Monday, shortly after being elected the next House speaker, Merrick said simply, “I don’t have an agenda.”

And Wagle pooh-poohed the idea that a pent-up avalanche of conservative policies were about to flood the Kansas Legislature.

“We’re going to take fresh looks at all issues,” she said.

Wagle said her main concern for the session that starts Jan. 14 is fixing the budget, which faces a $328 million revenue shortfall because of tax cuts approved earlier this year that were supported by Wagle and Merrick and signed into law by Brownback.

That law will decrease individual income tax rates for 2013, with the top rate dropping to 4.9 percent from 6.45 percent, and exempt the owners of 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses from income taxes.

One of the major issues confronting legislators as they face a revenue shortfall is whether to allow a temporary sales tax increase to sunset as scheduled. Brownback hasn’t ruled out proposing to keep that temporary increase in place to help shore up the budget.

The sales tax is 6.3 percent, but it is scheduled to drop to 5.7 percent in July. The state boosted the tax in 2010 — before Brownback took office — to protect public schools and social services spending, but pledged that most of the increase would be temporary.

Wagle said she hasn’t ruled out keeping the tax at its current rate.

“I would like to try and get by without doing that. I don’t know if it’s possible,” she said.