Democrats on Thursday announced their goals for the session — promising to emphasize education, transparency and public safety — though they didn’t always have specific policy proposals.
The lawmakers, in the wake of Gov. Sam Brownback’s State of the State address, said they would prioritize attracting jobs, making government more open, boosting public safety and retaining teachers.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, promised legislation to lower the state sales tax on food. Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, has introduced a bill in the House to reduce the rate.
The Democratic caucus constitutes a small minority in the House and Senate. In both chambers, Republicans wield near-total power over what bills come to the floor and which ones receive votes.
But Democrats can sometimes alter or slow the passage of bills they find onerous through amendments and parliamentary moves.
The focus on education comes as the Legislature wrestles with whether to move forward this year on crafting a new school funding formula and amid a potential court order to boost funding to schools.
Last year, Brownback administration officials were found to have used private email to exchange details about an upcoming budget proposal, prompting Democratic calls for transparency reforms.
And the Democrats have long opposed tax cuts enacted by Brownback and the Republican Legislature in 2012.
The Democrats on Thursday offered to work across the aisle — an overture to moderate Republicans who also share frustrations with the state’s tax policy and the agenda of more conservative lawmakers.
“Despite the problems our governor created, we believe our best days are ahead,” said House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City.
“We can have an economy that works for all Kansans and creates good-paying jobs,” Burroughs said. “We can return government to the people and make every voice and every vote count. We can provide safe, welcoming communities for families to live and raise their children and we can, we must make it our goal to have the best public schools in the nation and retain great teachers.”
Brownback touted his economic and tax policy when he spoke to lawmakers Tuesday, defending many of the same initiatives Democrats disagree with. Kansas has controlled spending and reformed tax policy, he said.
The governor also said the state has gained private sector jobs and now has its lowest unemployment rate in 14 years.
“Working together, we’ve created an economic environment where hard-working Kansans have seen their wages increase more than 10 percent,” Brownback said. “Kansans are finding good jobs, right here in our state.”
The 2016 session will likely be a critical period for Democrats ahead of elections in November, when Democrats hope to pick up seats.
Brownback’s popularity has soured among Kansans, according to multiple polls. The Democrats this week have circulated the results of a December poll of 500 likely voters by the Benenson Strategy Group. In the poll, 80 percent of respondents said Brownback was doing a poor or fair job as governor.
Last fall, a poll by the politics site Morning Consult gave Brownback a 26 percent approval rating. A poll by Insight Kansas found 18 percent of respondents were satisfied with the governor.