The Kansas State Capitol is a beautiful, breath-taking building. From the solid limestone foundation to the top of the dome, this structure exudes a solid feeling of strength and confidence, captured in our motto: “To the stars, through difficulties.”
For much of its history, the capitol has attracted well-meaning, sincere citizen legislators from the four corners of the state; through thick and thin Kansas has benefited from their service, despite the fiercest of political battles.
Regrettably, between 2012 and 2016, the Legislature failed the state of Kansas. The renovation of the magnificent capitol building was finally completed, but the politics under the dome proved unworthy of the structure.
In short, the legislative process just didn’t work.
In the past, committees took time and effort to work bills, to hear testimony, and to deliberate thoroughly before moving legislation to the floor. Party leaders worked with their committee chairs, with their members, and with the opposition to hammer out legislation that by and large served the interests of Kansans. Formal debate and informal discussions – while tough and sometimes emotional – made legislation better, though deliberation and compromise.
These characteristics vanished in the 2012-2016 period. Party leaders brought bills to the floor without adequate notice or discussion, often supporting an ideological governor who was becoming more detached from legislators and from the legislative process.
In sum, the Legislature became a dead zone for the conventional politics of discourse, horse-trading, and policy resolution.
Fast forward to 2017. Things have changed. No, partisanship has not vanished. Nor have in-your-face threats of primary-election retribution for pushing certain policies. Nor has dictatorial behavior of committee chairs like Rep. Clay Aurand (R-Belleville) on due process for teachers.
But the overall tenor of legislative activity is different, and for the better.
Legislators, lobbyists, staff, and journalists all report remarkable increases in civility, openness, and mutual respect among all lawmakers. Why? Most notably, the partisan and ideological make-up of the Kansas Legislature shifted dramatically in the 2016 elections, with more Democrats and moderate Republicans winning seats. Those results translated into shifting leadership structures and more responsive conservative Republican leaders in Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman.
Let’s be clear, far-right Republicans, who have dominated the Legislature over the past four years, have not packed up and gone home, but most have recognized the shift in membership and have adapted to the new reality.
Moreover, virtually every legislator can play a role this year. That means that minority leaders Anthony Hensley (Senate) and Jim Ward (House) know that their members’ votes will be needed for the Legislature to address the state’s overwhelming problems. Remarkably, Hensley’s Democratic tax proposal stands as a real alternative to the problematic GOP tax offering, which previously crashed and burned.
In many ways, the 2017 version of the Kansas Legislature is a throwback to the 1980s and early 1990s, when legislators fought serious battles with good will and collegiality.
Central here is the idea of process, which is boring, slow, and complex. Ultimately, however, the deliberation and discourse of the legislative process lead to inclusive decisions, and better ones. No voices are systematically excluded. Agendas are negotiated, not handed down without warning or discussion.
In the end, people talk to each other, despite their differences, or maybe because of them.
I have no desire to romanticize the legislative process. It’s tough, lengthy, and often frustrating, but crucial to the functioning of democracy. This year’s signs of legislative life indicate that our lawmakers might just dig the state out of the worst fiscal hole of our lifetimes.
Like renovating the capitol, this effort will take time, but it will ultimately honor the landmark building that both houses and symbolizes our representative government.