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. Cindy Holscher, Rep. Jan Kessinger and Sen. Pat Pettey are scheduled to send updates this week. Here’s Rep. Holscher’s filing:
Anyone who grew up in the 70s has likely seen the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon which creatively illustrates how a bill becomes a law – or, how it’s theoretically supposed to happen. While the Schoolhouse Rock scenario is focused on the national level, the procedure is supposed to be relatively similar on the state level. In reality, though, the process often has some interesting deviations as well as obstacles.
Many voters do not realize this, but the dynamics of leadership impact the process greatly. In past years, the House has been controlled by the Republican majority, most recently the far right faction. Once leadership positions are chosen (by the majority party), they in turn, determine committee chairs and vice-chairs. Only members of the majority party are chosen for these roles and often a strategy is implemented to ensure certain results – or the lack thereof are attained.
Committee chairs have a great deal of power. If there are particular bills that have been drafted that chairs don’t like, they won’t schedule the bill for a hearing. There are instances where bills, some at the request of citizens, have been drafted but not granted a hearing for several years. The Safe Access Act (which is a bill for medical marijuana) was drafted nearly three years ago by citizen advocates, but has been denied being heard in committee. Bills regarding the simplification of the voter registration process have also been drafted, but rejected by the Election Committee chair. Not all Committee chairs act in this obstructionist fashion and we have several committees where there is a “free-flow” of ideas. However, there is typically some strategy involved by the majority party to ensure their goals are achieved.
Occasionally, there will be an instance where a bill goes through the committee process favorably, but there may not be enough support for it on the floor with the body at large. This is where things can get “interesting.” If leadership is really pushing the bill, they may try to pressure members of their party who have previously not been supportive of the legislation. Often there is a promise made of a future committee chair position for a switched vote. Or, if the legislator has a bill that had previously been blocked, it might be granted a hearing. Conversely, pressure may be in the negative form; for instance moderates might be told the party will work to find a far right challenger in the primary for not going along with the wishes of leadership. Removal from committees is also a possibility; most notably in 2015, then-House Speaker Ray Merrick removed three moderate Republicans from the health care committee because they supported Medicaid expansion, something Merrick adamantly opposed.
While some may say, “Well, that’s politics,” I would contend that is not how the process is designed to work and it is certainly not what the public expects to happen. The vision of our citizens is typically that we listen to the bills brought forward, weigh the arguments, then vote. The idea that votes can be “bought” or traded is likely not what our constituents have in mind. Additionally, many of us who have been elected to the Legislature truly have the desire to serve the people without playing political games.
This is part of the reason why the bipartisan Women’s Caucus exists. Two years ago this group was formed to 1) enhance communication and 2) work to drive solutions. The group had an active role in formulating portions of the tax reform bill and garnering support for the reversal of the Brownback experiment in the 2017 session. This session the work has been more behind the scenes. We have met to review important bills and ensure we have an understanding of the implications of specific legislation. At the end of session, time was spent focusing on the tax cut bill being pushed by far right leadership. Women who were part of this group held steadfast in opposition to this bill that would have restarted parts of the Brownback experiment.
While one of our main goals is to ensure we are all “operating on the same page,” we also work to share ideas and encourage one another. Our hope is that with the next session we can continue to work collaboratively, developing solutions for a stronger Kansas.