Opinion: Mods, Dems and deals in Kansas

Three-party politics is back in Kansas. The parties consist of moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Democrats. Deals being made and leadership changes afoot all point to a new era — but the state’s problems remain daunting.

In the race for House minority leader, the narrow defeat of the centrist, conciliatory Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, by the more partisan, fiery Jim Ward, D-Wichita, portends a new direction for Kansas Democrats. Meanwhile, Kansas’ moderate Republicans — the other group gaining seats in 2016 — are cross-pressured. They have won a number of significant committee spots and other positions, including more power over education funding. However, recent votes for conservative leadership constitute a sharp reminder that moderate Republicans must work with their conservative party leadership.

Mods backed conservative leaders: House Speaker-elect Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, who won on the second ballot, and re-elected Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who had no serious challenger. Then again, mods also won several key committee positions and other important roles within the party caucuses, including House majority leader. Clearly, they have already realized that they have to pick and choose their battles while working within the party of Gov. Sam Brownback. They will probably focus on closing the LLC tax loophole and on education funding. These are great issues, and this is exactly what voters were promised.

The Democrats have a much freer hand. While still badly outnumbered, they did pick up several Statehouse seats, most notably in Wichita, plus one in the Senate. It now falls to Ward, Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and their colleagues to lead, spelling out a clear agenda contrasting with Brownback’s while reaching out to the mods — and others — for support. Democrats should fight for:

• Passing a new school base funding formula that ensures stable school funding statewide, not just in Johnson County, while avoiding excessive dependence on property taxes.

• Ending the pointless and destructive “border war” tax breaks between Kansas and Missouri that reward the politically well-connected who shake down the system for millions, but create no new jobs for the Kansas City area or either state.

• Bringing some sanity to the state’s “constitutional carry” gun laws, starting with a return of the background check, permitting and training requirements for carrying a handgun. Local control over the issue also needs to return to the students and faculty on university campuses, where the pending imposition of concealed-carry is wildly unpopular.

• Creating “lock boxes” to protect the highway, children’s health and other trust funds from any further diversion from their original purposes.

• Demanding long-term solutions to the state’s hemorrhaging budget mess and refusing to support any more one-time quick fixes until there is a plan.

• Defending professionalism, experience and competence among state workers and opposing the return of political patronage.

• A top-to-bottom audit of KanCare, Brownback’s privatized approach to Medicaid, to see if the promised cost savings have materialized, and to measure its impact on recipients, including seniors, the developmentally disabled, those with mental illnesses and others requiring long-term care.

Moderate Republicans are still part of a conservative-dominated party. They will fight hard for their priorities but must also pick their battles, often inside the caucus. It’s up to Ward, Hensley and their Democratic colleagues to show Kansans another way forward.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.