Current direction of Kansas government threatens Johnson County’s way of life, say NEJC legislators

Rep. Stephanie Clayton told the audience that she sometimes felt the entire state was being gaslighted by the conservative wing that controls Kansas government.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton told the audience that she sometimes felt the entire state was being gaslighted by the conservative wing that controls Kansas government.

Members of northeast Johnson County’s legislative delegation on Friday said the economic policy Gov. Sam Brownback once described as a “real-live experiment” is threatening to undermine an approach to governing that has proven solid and successful for decades: Johnson County’s commitment to investment in education and community infrastructure.

Before a room full of local business leaders and city officials at the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce’s end-of-the-year Legislative Breakfast, Reps. Barbara Bollier, Stephanie Clayton, Melissa Rooker, Jarrod Ousley and Sen. Pat Pettey aired a lengthy list of grievances with both the process and the outcomes of the previous session.

Pettey, who represents parts of Merriam and north Overland Park in Senate District 6, noted that the session had resulted in three unenviable superlatives: it was the longest session ever, saw the biggest tax increase in state history, and made Kansas the state with the highest food sales tax in the country.

Bollier decried a lack of leadership from the Governor and the Speaker of the House and said that the legislature’s priorities were at odds with what she hears business leaders want from the state — namely a quality workforce and desirable communities where those workers would want to put down roots. Legislation that threatens education spending and local control over decisions about investing in city infrastructure and services damages the state’s reputation in dangerous ways, she argued.

“We are going in the tank, and I am very worried for our state,” Bollier said. “I predict it is going to take us years to get out of this.”

Rooker, who has made a name for herself as one of the most knowledgeable education funding advocates in the House, said the legislature was quite likely to face the need to find hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding for public schools sometime in the coming year as the state Supreme Court considers the latest phase of the Gannon case. She noted that the state had failed to prevail in any of its challenges to the original Gannon decision, which said the state has not provided sufficient funding for public schools.

“The Supreme Court has already weighed in on these issues,” Rooker said. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think that [the state] will prevail this time either… This could be a $500 million decision.”

For her part, Clayton described the strange dual reality she found between sentiments in her district and the prevailing conventional wisdom in Topeka, where lawmakers seemed convinced that the only way to help the state succeed was to continue to shrink the size of government. That philosophy stands in stark contrast to the foundational governing philosophy that has made Johnson County the economic engine of the state, she said.

“Johnson County is the true economic experiment in this state, and it was carried out in the 1950s and showed huge growth,” she said. “It has proven to operate efficiently.”