I’ve given that lots of thought as I do my morning walks. It’s a question with many facets and potential explanations, and it’s one we need to take very seriously. For those of us who are firmly committed to the belief that we have to find a way to turn things around, it’s absolutely critical that we explore the events and decisions that brought about our current reality as we work to reclaim our state and—in no uncertain terms—our democracy. This will be an ongoing series here on my blog, and I hope you’ll consider engaging and adding to the conversation.
I’d like to start with the dramatic changes to the makeup of the legislature. As I’ve shared before, my experiences in a much earlier time are so different from today. New technology and unlimited money make a difference. But it is much more than that. Sure we had our awkward moments, politics and the legislative process have never been a Sunday School Picnic. But when I was active in politics, there was an abundance of talent among the elected officials on both sides of the aisle. For example, I remember when we would have as many as 35 lawyers in the House, almost all partners from respected firms, in contrast to today when “lay members” fill many seats on the Judiciary Committee. We had respected agriculture, business, health care, education, and community leaders to help shape the agenda. That does not mean they don’t exist today, but overall they are certainly not in the numbers we had at one time. So what happened?
Back in the 70’s, Speaker Pete McGill and his partner, minority leader Pete Loux, led reforms that in theory would improve the Legislature. They got the Senate to go along with higher salaries, higher daily per diem, improved facilities, and more support staff. All that seemed okay, and I wouldn’t suggest repealing those changes. But what did come as an unintended consequence was, in many cases—not all—a different type of candidate and ultimately a different elected official. It became a more attractive opportunity, which is good. But it often limited the candidate pool to only those who had and took the time to do all the door-to-door and money raising needed to get elected. That, in itself, seems right. But the results have shown a dramatic drop in very experienced community leaders and professionals being elected. Combined with growing involvement by both political parties, as well as outside interest groups, the culture and environment of the body has changed. We went from seasoned pros in both parties debating on the floor the key issues of the day, to where I fear today there is too much dependence on outside forces providing talking points and amendments. When you add to that an intense interest in getting re-elected at all costs, the budgets for campaigns skyrocketing, and raising money from special interests being almost a necessity, it is not shocking that we have some of the challenges of today.
So far, this is not unique to Kansas but can be observed in almost all states, at least to some degree. But for me, this is only the beginning in helping understand our current political climate. My next post will discuss the increasing role of special interests to fill the void for the lack of expertise we have in the modern legislature.
Also in this series: I discuss the role of special interests, the cultural and political aspects of our challenges— from an overview of the major political events to the role of the Democratic Party—and finally, I look at what it will take to turn things around in Kansas.