At policy forum, Bollier, Rooker say changes in legislature bolster chances for stabilizing state’s finances — but the challenge is huge

Rep. Melissa Rooker at Monday's UCS Johnson County forum.
Rep. Melissa Rooker at Monday’s UCS Johnson County forum.

Republican Northeast Johnson County legislators Barbara Bollier and Melissa Rooker say that the shift in the makeup of the Kansas legislature away from the dominance of conservatives offers hope for a long-term fix to the state’s growing budget problems. But, they noted, the road to recovery will be long and hard no matter how lawmakers ultimately decide to address the issues.

Bollier, the incoming District 7 senator, and Rooker, the District 25 representative just elected to her third term, were two of the four participants in a panel convened as part of United Community Services of Johnson County’s 2017 Public Policy Forum, which was held at the Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park. Before a room packed with elected officials, social service agency workers and advocacy organization staff members, Bollier said that the advances of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the 2016 elections was the first step toward tackling the state’s current systemic imbalances in revenue and expenditures.

“It’s good to be on offense,” Bollier said. “[But] we’re behind, what, 100 to nothing? So we’ve got a lot of points to make up for in this game.”

The elections yielded a gain of 12 seats for Democrats in the House, where they now control 40 seats. Republicans dropped from 97 to 85 seats. While that may still look like a dominant position for the Republicans, Rooker said, the outcome of the recent House leadership races suggest that the lower Chamber’s GOP caucus is neatly split between conservatives and moderates.

“We are pretty evenly divided in the Republican caucus, and so that effectively makes the House divided into thirds across the political spectrum,” Rooker said. “And that is reason to expect that…it will be a broader working coalition to solve problems. Because we have to. Because to find the votes needed, we have to work across the factions…”

However, Rooker noted, the issues facing the legislature will likely be compounded by a ruling in the Supreme Court case on the adequacy of school funding, which many expect the justices to issue before the 2017 session convenes Jan. 9. Still, she said she believed the new lawmakers will be more willing to work across party lines than some of the officials they replaced.

“The voters have done their job and set the course for us,” Rooker said. “Now we have a pretty tremendous team of people to go back to work with to work through these problems.”