Capitol Update: Powerful legislative leaders stymie progress favored by new moderate lawmakers, says Rep. Parker

Jay Senter - March 12, 2018 10:52 am
Rep. Brett Parker

Each legislative session, we provide the Shawnee Mission area’s elected officials with the chance to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Brett Parker, Rep. Cindy Neighbor and Sen. Dinah Sykes were scheduled to send updates this week. (Rep. Neighbor has not responded to any of our invitations to participate in Capitol Update).

Here’s Rep. Parker’s filing:

August 2016 saw a wave of moderate successes in the Republican primaries. November 2016 saw Kansas Democrats pick up more House seats than any other state in the nation. As one of those winning candidates, I was heartened by the successes on both nights as I imagined governing in the new bipartisan, common sense majority. As citizens or legislators, those of us who watched state house dysfunction under the Speaker Ray Merrick and Senate President Susan Wagle awaited a legislative process where good ideas received hearings and votes rather than being hidden from the light of day.

Fast forward to March 2018. Wagle is still Senate President. Brownback-era budget committee chair Ron Ryckman is now Speaker of the House. Medicaid expansion can’t get a hearing in its House committee and Senate GOP leadership are refusing to let it be voted on in their chamber. Transparency legislation remains largely un-acted upon. Perhaps most pressing of all, we inch closer and closer to a Supreme Court deadline on school finance with no work to show. Even good ideas that manage their way through a chamber, like the restoration of due process for teachers, must navigate an endless series of attempts at obstruction.

This is not to say we are without progress. The partial repeal of the failed Brownback tax experiment last session was a heavy lift only made possible by the wave of electoral successes in 2016. With a less extreme administration, Medicaid expansion would be a life saving, bipartisan success. But with bipartisan majorities in both House and Senate who ran on leaving ideology behind, why do so many good ideas get derailed?

This is where our Schoolhouse Rock understanding of legislating fails us. Though a majority vote on a bill will pass it, only a few people determine which bills get voted on. Both in committees and on the floor of the House and Senate, a single legislator with the power can stifle good ideas. Control of the schedule and calendar is what allows a few people to prevent real discussion on a school finance solution or to stifle the progress of transparency policies.

It doesn’t have to work this way. Though it is probably too late for a significant change in the process this year, we can lay the groundwork for a better legislative process for decades to come. If a similar bipartisan, common sense majority still exists in the House after the elections this August and November, the both the House and Senate can do two things to make the legislature work for mainstream Kansans.

First, we should change the House and Senate rules to allow committees to elect their own leadership. Committee chairs are currently only accountable to the House Speaker or Senate President. Bills with the support of committee members are frequently ignored if the chair, Speaker, or Senate President disagrees. By electing their own leadership, committees would likely end up with centrist chairs who must run their committees in a fair way.

Second, the House should elect a coalition Speaker and the Senate a coalition President. Currently the majority party votes on their nominee for Speaker or President in their caucus. No matter which candidate each backed in caucus, all agree to back the winner on the official vote with the whole chamber. This makes the vote of the minority party irrelevant and results in leadership much more extreme than the legislature as a whole. By breaking from this tradition, our bipartisan majority could elect a Speaker and Senate President accountable to more than than own party. We would have leadership that represents Kansas, not just one faction. Kansans elected a wave of pragmatic legislators who want to work together. It is time our leadership and legislative process reflects that.

If you have questions about this article or anything else going on in Topeka, don’t hesitate to reach me at [email protected]

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