Opinion: The Legislature is ready for its close-up

Someone recently asked me this: The Kansas Legislature is a part-time body that only meets for a few months. It must pass a budget. It must fix school funding before a court-imposed deadline. A Democrat is governor, but conservative Republicans run the Legislature. So, why didn’t lawmakers recognize political reality in Topeka, find agreements early that the governor and most legislators could stomach, then leave town?

The answer, of course, is “the show.” It’s for us.

We citizens — typically the spectators in policymaking — often enjoy the exciting side of politics, and we especially want “our side” to put on a good show. We like bold, principled statements that communicate virtue. We like emotion. We like fights that make awesome fodder for self-righteous Facebook posts. We often prefer the side of politics that looks more like “Real Housewives” flipping tables and snatching wigs to the wonky policy side.

So, one can understand why the Legislature must act out a dramatic script before real decisions get made. Compromising on Day One is bad for ratings. Nor does it help the ambitions of politicians who aspire to go from Off Broadway to Broadway itself. Good acting builds a fan club.

Take school funding. Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt have pushed legislators to act before the April court deadline that could lead to schools closing. Instead of cutting a deal early, the Legislature is acting out a kabuki dance of delay, threats and insults just to remind Kelly that it exists. Weeks of melodramatic political theater that distract from a looming deadline.

Or take taxes. Whatever you think about the last election, Kelly won. She has the veto for four years. Conservatives do not have enough votes to override her, but their job is to make policy. Yet, conservatives are spending valuable days acting like Sam Brownback is still governor and promoting a tax bill that Kelly will likely veto. Time wasted, but great theater for the 2020 and 2022 elections, especially for legislators seeking higher office.

Eventually compromise will come. Schools must be funded. A budget must be passed. Kelly and Republicans should both win some and lose some. Compromise hurts. In fact, in a recent column where I suggested that Topeka politicians compromise, I apparently hurt the feelings of one conservative legislator who dramatically proclaimed that I was demanding that he “behave as a Democrat.” No, but drama must eventually give way to policy reality.

Yes, Democrats have theater, too. There is a clear parallel between politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the left making grand proclamations on policies that stand little chance of becoming law and what Republicans like Jim Denning or Susan Wagle are doing in Topeka. Not much bowing to reality but great dramatic displays of virtue.

Where Kansans lose in this drama is on efficiency and responsibility. Rather than practicing the dirty art of compromise up front, we get theater that reinforces for the cynical among us that politics is ugly, aloof and unproductive. Rather than using the Legislature’s time efficiently, we get dilly-dallying that procrastinates on the real work and risks producing half-baked laws that courts will strike down or that the Legislature must fix later. And worthwhile bills with potentially broad support die because little time is given to them.

Ultimately, Kansans can choose what to reward. We can give our Oscar votes to the most dramatic actors who gave us that most entertaining show, or we can reward the workhorses who might have given us some good drama but ultimately made Topeka work. You choose.

— Patrick R. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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