By Thom Little, Ph.D.

Everybody talks about top-down leadership. Those at the top of the pyramid lead those further down. Indeed, with its focus on presiding officers, pro tempores and floor leaders, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation has spent more than forty-five years focusing on top-down leadership. But today, I want to flip that on its head and talk about leadership that comes from within the rank-and-file membership.

Last year, Kansas and Illinois, two states that could not be more different politically, found themselves sharing the same dire economic prospects – having their credit ratings downgraded to the point that getting loans was very difficult. In February 2017, Kansas was notified that there was a one-in-three chance that its AA rating would be downgraded to an A, two levels above junk bond status. Two months later, Illinois got even worse news. They were told that without significant changes, their BBB rating would be downgraded to junk bond status, basically making it impossible for the state to borrow money.

The paths that brought each state to this point were quite different. In Kansas, a heavily Republican state, Governor Sam Brownback and the Republican state legislature passed major tax cuts in 2013 with the belief that these tax cuts would stimulate the state’s recession restricted economy and generate additional revenues. However, the promised resurgence did not occur and the state found itself unable to adequately fund basic services in 2014-2017. The budget problems were made worse by a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found the state was not adequately funding K-12 education.

While the economic problems in Kansas stemmed primarily from a decrease in revenues, the problem in historically Democratic Illinois was the result of overspending and overpromising. The state has not had a balanced budget in more than a decade and its state pension fund has long been the most underfunded in the country. The 2014 election of Republican businessman Bruce Rauner and his “Illinois Turnaround Agenda” created a clash with the Democratically controlled state legislature leading to a period of more than two years of temporary and partial budgets.

Despite numerous efforts, legislative leaders in both states were unable to come up with a budget that would garner their respective governor’s signature or enough votes to override the promised gubernatorial vetoes.

In Illinois, while the Democratic Speaker and the Republican Governor postured, the Senate President (Democrat) and Minority Leader (Republican) worked during early summer 2017 to craft a bipartisan biennial budget. However, those efforts failed when the Governor promised a veto of the bipartisan compromise That’s when a bipartisan group of 33 “rank-and-file” legislators, seventeen Democrats and sixteen Republicans in the Illinois House stepped in. Understanding the political risks they were taking, the group dubbed themselves “the Lame-Duck Caucus.” After several clandestine meetings away from the Capitol, they crafted, signed and presented a letter stating, “We ask the senators from both parties to pass the best negotiated package they can, and then we will take up their work in the House.” Democrats used the letter to convince the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate that there would be votes in the House to not only pass the Senate budget, but enough votes to override a promised gubernatorial veto. Encouraged by this bipartisan promise, the Illinois Senate passed its budget, which was vetoed as promised, and then overrode the veto by a single vote. The vetoed budget was then sent to the House where, as promised, a bipartisan coalition (with ten Republicans) voted to override the veto of the Governor, giving the state its first biennial budget in over two years.

In Kansas, legislators faced a similar dilemma, where Governor Brownback refused to raise taxes to cover a growing shortfall. When House leaders failed to act, a bipartisan group of rank-and-file female House members calling themselves the Women’s Caucus began to work on a bipartisan budget. While Senate leaders had crafted a bipartisan plan that had passed their chamber, a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats led the charge to defeat it. In response, a group of moderate female legislators from both parties began to meet privately and discovered that they had much more in common than they had realized. These impromptu meetings eventually led to a bipartisan budget that garnered a majority of the votes in both chambers and eventually enough votes to gain the support of the Speaker of the House and enough members to override the Governor’s veto. Speaker Ryckman summed up the value of “bottom-up leadership” in the House in casting his affirmative vote, “This is not the plan I supported but it is the plan the majority of this House supported.”

In the end, as these two cases inform us, leadership does not have to be defined just by position. Leadership does not have to come from the top (although it sure helps to have the leaders on board). Any legislator, willing to work hard, listen, look for common ground and work with others can make a difference and indeed change the fate of a state. Congratulations to the “Lame Duck Caucus” in Illinois and the “Women’s Caucus” in Kansas for working together to get the job done!