This mantra is one that keeps popping into my head as I watch the debate unfold in the Kansas legislature this year.
In my last post, just prior to the 2016 elections, I described the worries that my wife and I had about staying in Kansas for the long term, despite our deep ties to the state. I laid out several questions that surfaced in at our dinner table time and again. And I expressed some hope that the 2016 election in Kansas would help re-direct our state’s elected officials back toward the type of pragmatic, real-world approach to building a thriving place to live, work, and raise a family.
There was good news in November, at least here in Kansas. We saw many thoughtful voices elected (or re-elected) to the Kansas Legislature on the clear promise to address those very core issues. In both the primary and general elections, we saw individuals elected who campaigned explicitly on changing the way things worked in Topeka and getting our state back on a responsible path. Fifty new voices joined the chorus in the Statehouse this year. Many, although not all, heard loud and clear from voters in their districts that they wanted legislators to exercise leadership to fix the mess that the state’s budget and taxes are in.
All of us knew (or should have known) that the solutions were going to be difficult and come with very difficult choices. But we needed leadership that would at the very least stop digging a bigger hole in the state’s long-term finances, and then return some semblance of sanity and respect to the way the state addresses the priorities of state government, like schools, roads, and public health.
And now, we’re several weeks into the session, and the challenges remain and the questions aren’t answered. And we still haven’t even stopped digging the hole. But in the next couple of weeks, legislators across the political spectrum must step up and lead.
Here’s why that mantra – “if an excuse is needed, one can always be found” – won’t leave my mind. There are two easy paths and one hard path for moderate Republicans and Democrats to follow.
One easy path, one that I’ve heard some Democrats give voice to, is this: “Unless we get a complete return to the pre-2012 tax structure, then we’re not voting for any fixes.” If a bill is just a partial fix—such as placing LLCs and Chapter S corporations back on the tax rolls—these folks are reluctant to support it. Their claim is that doing so won’t raise enough revenue alone, and they’ll be forced to vote for other, harder to stomach, tax increases later that will be used against them in the 2018 election cycle.
A second easy path, one that I’ve heard some moderate Republicans indicate, is this: “There’s no way the leadership or Governor Brownback are going to sign on to the type of big fixes needed. So why should I stick my neck out and risk the ire of a well-funded primary opponent in 2018?” Their claim is that all the choices are so distasteful that it’s ok to go along with a plan to cut K-12 and higher education some more, borrow from the state pension plan some more (on illusory promises to “repay” it later), and balance the budget by leveraging the future to pay for the present. In other words, why vote for something that will be vetoed?
What makes both “easy” arguments frustrating is that they are both convenient excuses, ready just when one was needed.
Yes, Democrats are unlikely to get all they want out of whatever emerges. That’s what happens when the party has only one elected official west of I-135, and has exhibited a frustrating tendency to eschew systemic, statewide efforts in favor of focusing on strengthening strongholds in Douglas, Wyandotte, Johnson, Shawnee, and Sedgwick counties. When you’re outnumbered, it’s very hard to exercise real civic leadership, and it’s going to be messy.
Yes, moderate Republicans may have to buck their party leadership. But they weren’t elected to walk in lock-step with the party leadership. They were elected by a loud contingent of voters who wanted them to do their utmost to fix what is clearly broken, and to do it without further damage to core public services. When you’re challenging your “team’s” orthodoxy, it’s hard to exercise real civic leadership, and it’s going to be messy.
Make no mistake—2018 is looming. But if right-thinking legislators don’t step up and lead now, they’re likely to find many of us didn’t wait around. Voters need to hold their new legislators accountable now, and not just when Election Day rolls around. The excuses that could jeopardize things are too easily found if the rest of us are not remaining present and engaged throughout this legislative session.
And I hope every legislator knows another lesson my father taught me early on: “People remember the choices you make.”
Matt Lindsey is the president of the Kansas Independent College Association & Fund, where he coordinates a range of programs designed to strengthen Kansas' private, non-profit, colleges through collaboration, governmental advocacy, and public engagement and to support the ability of college students to choose and afford an effective, high-quality college education that fits their individual goals. Lindsey previously worked as the Executive Director for Kansas Campus Compact and as an adjunct faculty member with Kansas State University's Staley School of Leadership Studies. He also worked in Washington, DC as the Senior Associate for Freedman Consulting, where he advised non-profits, philanthropies, and civic groups on public advocacy strategies.