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Why Kansas’ 2018 election candidates shouldn’t try to leave a legacy

A word of advice for politicians seeking office in the Nov. 6 general election: Think about what you want Kansas to be in 2030.

It’s been a rough decade or so for Kansas governors looking to leave behind a legacy.

Sam Brownback’s tax cuts sought to deliver “a shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy. But instead they brought about plummeting state revenues and budget cuts, turning one of the most electorally successful politicians in state history into one of the country’s least popular governors.

Some of the biggest initiatives of his predecessor, Democrat Mark Parkinson, fared little better. Just six days into office, Parkinson brokered a deal to bring a long-blocked coal-fired generating plant to fruition in exchange for the passage of green energy legislation. The following year, he signed a 1-cent sales tax increase into law, part of which was temporary, to balance a state budget wounded by the recession.

How do things look in 2018? Well, after years of legal wrangling, the power plant remains unbuilt and likely never will be. And the Legislature has walked back the green energy incentives, in part by making renewable-energy mandates for utilities voluntary.

As for the tax increase? It only staved off budget woes until Brownback’s administration. Then the temporary portion of the sales tax hike became permanent, helping pay for Brownback’s own income tax cuts.  

And remember back in 2006 when Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a three-year school funding plan into law to end a lawsuit against the state for providing inadequate funding for public education? After a recession squeezed state revenues, the state found itself back in court fewer than three years later in litigation that continues to this day.

Perhaps these brief summaries are a little unfair. Taxes still remain lower than they were when Brownback took office. Parkinson’s deal-making broke a logjam that had polarized the Legislature for two years. And the tax boost under Parkinson and the school funding increases under Sebelius certainly tamed those controversies for a short time. How were they to know that circumstances would change?

But if I could offer some advice to Republican Kris Kobach, Democrat Laura Kelly and independent Greg Orman as they seek the governor’s office, or any of the 100-some candidates vying for the Legislature in the Nov. 6 general election, it’s this: Go in prepared to take the long view. Don’t just think about 2022 or 2026. Give some thought about 2030 and beyond.

It’s not that state-level politicians can’t have great impacts. But our current political climate isn’t terribly conducive to leaving a legacy. One year’s historic law can be threatened with repeal the next. And even if they don’t succeed, opponents can still constrain a politician’s initiatives in lots of little ways. (Exhibit A: President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Congressional Republicans haven’t repealed it, but they have negated key portions of it, such as the mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance.)

Instead of constantly going for broke, politicians would be wise to focus instead on small, thoughtful steps forward. They should put nearly as much muscle into building up allegiances and the infrastructure to support their goals as they do on achieving the goals themselves. They should work on at least a few things that could turn their political opponents into allies even if the resulting coalition is fleeting. Even if one good turn doesn’t bring another, it at least gives everyone a breather to remind people that politics doesn’t always have to be a battle. Come to think of it, those of us who aren’t public officials but want to influence them might also benefit from keeping these approaches in mind.

The truth is that many of the state’s most important challenges, from funding public education to reckoning with demographic changes, are deeply adaptive challenges and will defy one-off efforts and signature victories. Nor are anyone’s opponents going away either. No matter who wins the election in 2018, don’t expect the losers to go away quietly. They’ll be back in 2020, 2022 and 2024.

So much of campaigning in this especially partisan age is, for many good reasons, about getting voters to forget this. Political advertisements and messages speak to emotion, identity, brief attention spans and short-term thinking. My hope is that more Kansans – especially Kansas Leadership Center alumni – will take the time to ask for more from the candidates who ask for their votes.

To help in this process, we’ve asked every candidate running for statewide or legislative to respond to our two-question survey:

1. Should you be elected in 2018, how do you want Kansas to be better off in 2030 as a result of your service?

2. In what ways do you plan to exercise leadership to bring about that outcome?

Every response we’ve received is now available on The Journal’s website, here. They will serve as a supplement to the array of voter guides that are typically available this time of year. It won’t tell you everything you need to know about the candidates, but it will provide information that you probably won’t receive anywhere else.

The truth about tackling a daunting problem is that movement rarely comes in a linear fashion. It comes in fits and starts. It requires some engagement with one’s political opposites,  not just efforts to defeat them. And oftentimes, the most important work takes place after the headlines are written.

If this is the political environment that Kansans are sending their government representatives off to, then they need lawmakers and officials who have the right mindset for the job, regardless of ideology or partisan loyalties. (I believe strongly that these individuals can come from the left, right and center.) If the future of the state depends on having people who are willing to be pragmatic as well as partisan representing Kansas, then there’s no better year to start electing them than this one.

A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.

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