One week of action in the 2018 Legislature lent credibility to predictions this session would set a standard for bizarre conduct at the Capitol.
The Statehouse chessboard was already covered in partisan-fraying campaign rhetoric, evidence of old-boy tolerance of sexual harassment, pressure to succumb to a new era of government transparency and leadership friction rooted in a quasi-dual governorship.
Then, Gov. Sam Brownback delivered the State of the State speech. All hell broke lose.
There were daily reminders the executive branch was under the spell of two men — Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer. Both have one foot in and one foot out of the Cedar Crest residence in Topeka. Brownback resurfaced at the Capitol but also renewed his lobbying campaign in Washington, D.C., for a Trump administration job. Colyer kept a hand on duties typically reserved for a Kansas governor and turned up the flame on personal appearances that serve as auditions for a full-time assignment in that role.
“The situation we’ve had here recently in Kansas reminds me of that Abbott and Costello routine,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “Who’s on first. What’s on second. I Don’t Know’s on third. You have a lot of confusion as to who is actually leading our state.”
Powerful House and Senate members blocked a deal championed by Brownback to allow a private company with a checkered past to build the new state prison at Lansing. On Tuesday, Brownback intends to push back against skeptics by hosting a tour at Lansing Correctional Facility.
GOP heavyweights objected to Colyer’s proposal for amending the privatized, but troubled Medicaid program serving 400,000 poor, disabled and elderly Kansans. Democrats said they’ll call on the Legislature to expand eligibility for Medicaid. In rebuttal, Colyer is scheduled Monday to visit hospitals in Garden City, Hutchinson and Clay Center.
In Topeka, in unprecedentedly disparaging terms, Republican legislators responded to Brownback’s annual State of the State speech by ridiculing the governor’s proposal to add $600 million in state aid to K-12 education over five years. They were incensed Brownback didn’t share a road map to the revenue.
“This proposal marks a drastic departure from fiscal restraint,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.
Rather than spew venom at the state’s Republican governor, Democrats in the House and Senate found themselves applauding the notion of dropping truckloads of cash on classrooms statewide.
The left-leaning Kansas Center for Economic Growth and the right-wing Kansas Truth Caucus — never before on the same page — simultaneously pointed to irony of Brownback’s lacerating denunciation in 2017 of a two-year, $1.2 billion tax increase to stabilize the budget and the governor’s unrestrained eagerness in 2018 to celebrate the opportunity to spend that new tax revenue.
“What a difference half a year makes,” said Heidi Holliday, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. “When Governor Sam Brownback responded to the passage of Senate Bill 30 in June, he blasted the bipartisan majority of legislators who ended his ill-advised tax ‘experiment.’ But the governor’s budget … embraces the very changes made last session.”
Sen. Ty Masterson, a Republican member of the Kansas Truth Caucus, said there was no explaining the governor’s recommendation to gouge taxpayers with a cumulative five-year, $2 billion increase in state aid to public schools.
“That’s irresponsible to propose that much new spending without understanding where it’s coming from,” Masterson said.
Further evidence this year’s session of the Kansas Legislature is likely to read like an installment of News of the Weird?
The campaign for governor picked up speed with release of campaign-finance reports from an unprecedentedly deep field of Republican, independent and Democratic candidates. Several demonstrated a capacity to target political rivals.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has diligently cultivated a relationship with President Donald Trump and the Trump clan, ripped Colyer. Kobach said about half of Colyer’s contributions were from political-action committees, businesses or out-of-state special interests. Kobach said 90 percent of his contributions were from Kansans.
“From the beginning, my campaign has been about the people of Kansas, not the special interests,” Kobach said.
Carl Brewer, a former Wichita mayor seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor, seized on the alleged comment by Trump comparing African countries to outhouses and a statement by Rep. Steve Alford, R-Ulysses, that black people were predisposed to abusing marijuana due to “character makeup” and “their genetics.”
“I call on my fellow candidates for governor, all state and federal legislators and Governor Brownback to condemn these un-American views,” Brewer said. “I call on our secretary of state, Kris Kobach, who has worked closely with the president, to denounce this bigotry once and for all.”
And, despite ignoring evidence of the problem in the past, there is recognition in the 2018 Legislature that time had come to address sexual harassment at the Capitol. The Legislature’s policy on sexual harassment hasn’t been updated in decades. The college students who serve as interns this session went through training on sexual harassment. Legislators weren’t required to attend.
“A number of issues have been raised that obviously require the Legislature’s attention,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. “I’m hopeful we can change hearts and minds.”