The impact of state elections in November 2016 — when more than one-third of Kansas legislators were replaced — was apparent in votes throughout this year’s legislative session and profoundly evident last week in the rollback of signature fiscal policies backed by Gov. Sam Brownback.
Seventy-nine percent of the new state representatives voted to override Brownback’s veto of a tax bill that eliminates the so-called LLC loophole and dissolves the path to becoming a zero-income tax state. The majority of those were Republican. A handful of those included in the count are legislators who left office, but then were elected to serve in 2017.
Topeka Reps. Brenda Dietrich, a Republican, and Jim Gartner, a Democrat, praised the work of the freshman group.
The freshman class was a group of problem solvers regardless of their party, Dietrich said. They wanted to get back to a place where people work together, she said.
“I think the freshman became very educated on the issues, especially the tax issue,” said Gartner, who was a member of the tax committee.
Dietrich described the tax vote as a “daunting decision,” but said the bill worked towards getting the state on a sustainable path to get out of debt.
The tax measure is expected to collect more than a billion dollars through income tax hikes adopted to address an estimated $900 million revenue shortfall and insufficient school funding.
The bipartisan duo organized a leadership training that met several times throughout the session for the incoming legislators.
Dietrich said it gave them the opportunity to learn about the legislative process and become more familiar on various challenges facing the state. It was also a chance to get to know one another.
“I’m glad we had the opportunity to get to know the new freshman and build relationships with them,” Gartner said. “It makes it so much easier to discuss the issues.”
Dietrich, a former superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn Unified School District 437, also credited the group’s past “life experiences” which “brought a new depth.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist who teaches at Washburn University, described the election as “arguably the most impactful on Kansas policy as any in modern memory.”
In November 2016, Kansas voters unseated 11 House incumbent Republicans while the GOP picked up a former Democrat’s seat. Many Republican candidates ran campaigns distancing themselves from Brownback.
Beatty said the election dramatically changed the nature of Kansas politics and pointed to the health care debate as an example.
Before the election, a Medicaid expansion bill couldn’t get a hearing in committee. In the 2017 session, an expansion was passed by the House and the Senate. Brownback vetoed it and the House fell three votes short of overriding his decision.
Beatty also said the election outcome brought the Legislature closer to reflecting the people it represents.
“Before 2016 many polls showed a majority of Kansans favoring Medicaid expansion and dumping the LLC exemption, but the Legislature refused to consider either,” Beatty said. “After the 2016 elections the Legislature became more in line with Kansas public opinion as expressed in polls.”
The composition of the Republican party in Kansas remains an open question.
“The 2016 elections not only brought in a more moderate Kansas Legislature, but maybe more importantly in terms of fixing the budget problems, a more pragmatic legislature,” Beatty said.
Dietrich shied away from labeling herself a moderate, instead describing herself as a “reasonable, rational Republican.” However she said she has observed a different mindset where people aren’t so extreme and unyielding in their positions.
Gartner said he imagined it was difficult for House Speaker Ron Ryckman, of Olathe, to deal with the spectrum of moderate and conservative views within the Republican party.
Beatty pointed out that while the tax bill passed, Republicans continued to vote more conservatively on issues such as abortion and guns.
With the 2016 elections and the veto override, Beatty said the 2018 gubernatorial race is setting up to be “a classic conservative versus moderate battle.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman and former state Sen. Jim Barnett, of Emporia, are vying for the Republican nomination.
“A smart moderate candidate will want to firmly put himself in the camp of opposing Brownback and supporting the 2017 legislature,” Beatty said. “With the more moderate vibe in the Kansas GOP, a conservative could still win the primary against a moderate if he were to shift the debate in the primary from dissatisfaction with Brownback to issues that even the 2017 Kansas Legislature was still conservative on, such as crime and punishment.”