Opinion: Legislating must be taken seriously

This past Monday, Kansas legislators elected their leaders for 2017-18. We should all wish them good luck, because they will need it.

Leadership elections are inside baseball contests, shrouded in secrecy, but the results often offer indications of how the upcoming Legislature will operate.

In the Senate, two results stand out. First is Susan Wagle’s, R-Wichita, solid (23-7) victory over Andover’s Ty Masterson, giving her four more years as Senate president and demonstrating her strength within both the GOP caucus and the entire chamber. Second is the selection of Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, as Senate vice president and Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, as majority leader. Longbine’s moderation and Denning’s reality-based conservatism should be real assets in moving the chamber toward effective policies.

In the House, Ron Ryckman Jr.’s, R-Olathe, convincing 58-27 win over moderate Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, provides some evidence for continuing conservative strength among Republicans. But more significant, perhaps, was the 44-41 victory by prominent moderate Don Hineman, R-Dighton, to become majority leader. This was probably a more accurate test of the moderate-conservative balance in the GOP caucus, although that will shift from issue to issue.

Finally, in a battle of Democratic veterans, Wichita Representative Jim Ward narrowly unseated Kansas City’s Tom Burroughs, signaling a desire of the now-40 minority members to provide more aggressive and forceful opposition. Still, with enhanced numbers, Democrats can productively engage in writing laws, and Ward will need to act accordingly.

Along with returning Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, these individuals have their work cut out for them.

The Legislature’s many challenges stem directly from the disastrous taxation policies enacted in 2012. Indeed, searching for spending cuts and revenue enhancements (the polite term for “more taxes”) to address almost a billion dollars in shortfalls is a beyond-daunting task, made potentially more difficult by an impending Supreme Court school finance ruling.

Making this job especially tough is that for the past six years the regular legislative process has largely been abandoned in Topeka. Rather, both chambers have operated under the control of a closed-minded, far-right majority that simply saw no need for the open, ordered deliberation that can produce well-considered legislation.

Committee hearings dwindled in number and importance, while legislative leaders and committee chairs pushed forward legislation without adequate (or sometimes any) discussion.

In short, deliberation and compromise haven’t been necessary in recent years, given the overwhelming GOP majorities in Topeka. Exhibit A, of course, is the 2012 tax cut legislation, which the governor admitted was imperfect, even as he signed a jury-rigged bill that has produced dire consequences for the state and its citizens.

In the coming months, Kansas legislators must roll up their collective sleeves to address revenue problems, and the attendant policy implications — for schools, roads, health care, mental health and welfare, among other subjects.

All this must be done with 165 legislators who have relatively little effective legislative experience. Indeed, only 12 of 40 senators and 24 of 125 representatives will have served in both 2009-10 (the last moderate-conservative session) and 2017-18. And among majority Republicans, just 12 representatives and six senators will have had such tenure.

In short, a lot of “legislative learning” must occur, especially for new committee chairs, who will preside over many complex and contentious issues. The pressures to address revenues and other concerns will be great, but legislators should not act in too much haste. They must take legislating seriously– in committee rooms, in caucus meetings, and on the floor — to slowly turn the Kansas ship of state.

— Professor Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas is the author of “Time, Politics, and Policy: A Legislative Year,” which examined one year in the Kansas Legislature.