GOP division offers Kansas Democrats opportunities, and pitfalls

January 16, 2017

By Jonathan Shorman

jonathan.shorman@cjonline.com

Senate Democrats have taken notice of the growing division between the chamber’s Republican leaders and the GOP governor – a feud that represents potential opportunity, and peril, for the minority party.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, condemned the verbal bombs lobbed last week between Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Gov. Sam Brownback. A rift over the state’s budget and financial situation has grown into an unusually public fight between the two Republican officials.

Political observers say the spat provides a chance for Democrats to boost their legislative influence, but could also prove troublesome if Republicans successfully corner the market on Brownback opposition.

The GOP senators and the governor’s office issued dueling statements last week attacking each other’s approach to the budget. Hensley said such a fight is not the way to begin the legislative session.

“Obviously, it does not look good on the Senate side in terms of the war of words that’s going on between the Senate Republican leadership and the governor,” Hensley said. “It does not bode well. We’re into the first, really, four days of the session and it does not bode well for us when we have these competing news releases that are sent out.”

Kansas faces a budget shortfall of more than $340 million in the current fiscal year, which runs until July. An additional gap of more than $500 million is anticipated in the following year.

The Brownback administration rolled out its budget plan last Wednesday. The plan includes increases to cigarette and other taxes, and also reinstates a tax on passive business income from rents and royalties. The proposal would access more than $300 million from an investment fund related to unclaimed property.

The plan would securitize annual payments the state receives as part of a settlement agreement with tobacco companies. Securitization would produce hundreds of millions in immediate revenue but greatly shrink or eliminate the annual payouts of more than $50 million the state currently receives.

Wagle and other Republican leaders didn’t react well. The chamber’s GOP leadership released a statement saying Brownback’s plan lacked a structural budget fix. The senators also dinged the governor for relying on one-time revenue sources, alleging the math “doesn’t add up.”

“We cannot kick this can down the road any longer,” the senators said.

The governor’s office hit back, alleging Wagle prefers tax hikes and “punishing” across-the-board cuts. The statement, from a spokeswoman, challenged the Senate president to produce her own balanced budget plan.

The Democrats can exploit GOP division, said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University. But they will need to be united, he said, adding that Democrats themselves are a diverse group, representing different constituencies.

During the 2015 session, when lawmakers raised taxes to close another massive budget shortfall, Republicans divided into multiple factions, each advocating a different approach. If a similar fracturing occurs again, those blocs may see Democrats as a potential source of votes.

The key for Democrats is choosing their battles, and deciding when to wade into conflicts publicly and when to continue to negotiate quietly, Smith indicated.

“Hensley’s also been doing this job a long time and in the pre-Brownback days he did cut deals with different coalitions,” Smith said.

GOP division may offer a double-edged sword to Democrats, however. Brownback’s high unpopularity, demonstrated through polling over the past year, creates space for political opposition.

While the natural expectation is that Democrats would move to fill that space, some Republicans are also rushing to claim it, argued Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University. Wagle is practicing smart politics, he said.

“She’s continued this and this makes it problematic for the Democrats because what they’d like to do is go forward as the clear opposition to Brownback and the conservative agenda,” Beatty said.

At a news conference Friday, Hensley called the Brownback administration’s response to Wagle “vitriolic,” but also distanced himself from the GOP senators’ position on the budget.

“The other thing I find concerning, going back to the Senate Republican leadership’s statement – they are talking about a solution that will require a combination of cuts and changes to tax policy,” Hensley said.

The Senate Democratic leader argued Kansas can’t cut its way out of budget problems and voiced concern over what potential cuts Republicans might have in mind. The state doesn’t need budget cuts, it needs a revenue solution instead, he said.

Wagle and Brownback have so far opted not to respond directly to Hensley’s commentary on their dispute.

Asked for comment, Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said: “Governor Brownback proposed a structurally balanced budget to the legislature this week; his budget solves the challenges of today and provides sustainable answers for the future.”

Approached through a spokeswoman, Wagle didn’t comment.

Kansas has seen Republican infighting before. Beatty said Republican Gov. Bill Graves attracted grumbling. But Graves was a moderate facing hostility from conservatives, he noted.

The current situation is different, Beatty said. Never before has Kansas had a governor as conservative as Brownback.

“This is new having conservatives like Wagle openly defy a conservative governor,” Beatty said, “because the situation is new in Kansas.”

This article was originally published on the Topeka Capital-Journal website, here.