Lawmakers arrived in Topeka Monday with monumental money problems facing the state and an executive branch stuck in a confusing transition.
It’s the start of a roughly 90-day session in which they, once again, must juggle the state’s checkbook to meet multiple pressing needs. That includes an ultimatum from the Kansas Supreme Court to find more tax dollars for schools.
It’s a tough job made that much harder by unusual political circumstances: a lame-duck governor made even less relevant by his desire to jump to a job in the Trump administration as soon as the U.S. Senate can muster the votes to confirm him. A lieutenant governor chomping at the bit to take over. And a herd of wannabe governors inside and outside the Statehouse sure to criticize every move.
Thinking his confirmation was imminent last fall, Gov. Sam Brownback started sharing budget preparation duties with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer. That created confusion over who was calling the shots — the existing governor or the one in waiting. And that forced Brownback to reassert himself.
He, not Colyer, will give the annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday. And he, not Colyer, will lay out the administration’s plan for addressing the court ruling that once again declared the state’s funding of public schools unconstitutionally low.
“This is the governor’s response,” Brownback said in an interview last week. “I’m the governor.”
But how much influence the governor commands remains an open question. Multiple polls in the last couple of years consistently ranked him among the nation’s least popular governors. That, coupled with the fact that he is widely seen as having one foot out the door, have eroded his influence, said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.
“He’s been a non-factor,” Loomis said.
Brownback’s ebbing power was glaring at the end of the 2017 session, when lawmakers overpowered him to pass a bill that rolled back the income tax cuts he championed in 2012. The revolt was led by a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans elected in 2016 on a promise to fix the budget mess in Topeka.
A lack of leadership at the top makes the job of a part-time legislature harder, said House Minority Leader Jim Ward.
“It makes it much, much more difficult to get to a resolution,” said Ward, a Democratic candidate for governor.
Perhaps nothing looks harder to fix than school financing. The court demands could require another $600 million, even as the state searches for a way to pay back money borrowed from its employee pension fund.
Republican leaders have said their members have no appetite for another tax increase. But heading into an election year makes service cuts — to education, highways and the like — just as unsavory.
Tough choices, made tougher by the leadership questions that loom large as lawmakers begin their work.
Jim McLean is managing director of KMUW's Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.