By Thom Little, Ph.D.

This weekend more than forty state legislative leaders from across the country will gather at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for SLLF’s Spring Leadership Forum. Responsible Leadership: Working Together to Restore Confidence in Our Democracy will feature several state legislative leaders who are practicing the art of cross-party compromise and encouraging others to do the same.

Leaders from the Kansas Legislature will discuss their 2017 bipartisan revision to the 2012 tax cuts known as the “red-state experiment.” This is an example of a bipartisan coalition that grew out of necessity and out of a long and difficult process where all sides came (over much time and debate) to understand that such a coalition was the best thing they could do for the state.

As members of the Kansas Legislature were called to order in the beginning of 2017, they faced significant challenges. State revenues had declined and deficits increased for the previous three years and just three months before the Kansas Supreme Court had ruled that Kansas schools were unconstitutionally underfunded. To make matters worse, two of the key leaders who would have to address this crisis got along like “oil and water” by their own accounts. And yet, later that same year, a bipartisan coalition of legislators voted to repeal significant parts of the 2012 tax plan and override the governor’s veto of that plan. Those same two leaders, Senate Majority Leader Jim Ward and House Minority Leader Jim Denning, were selected as Governing Magazine’s 2017 Public Officials of the year.

So how did oil and water come together in the Jayhawk state? The story is quite interesting and it provides some valuable lessons for leaders in other states where compromise is necessary to solve problems.

Sometimes, You Have to do What You Have to Do. In a very real sense, members of the Kansas Legislature did not have a choice in the matter. In light of the circumstances they had to do something. Five years earlier, when the Kansas Legislature had passed (with amendments that made it less fiscally responsible than the original proposal) and Governor Brownback had signed legislation to significantly cut taxes in the state, Kansas recorded a $314 million surplus. By 2016, the state had recorded three deficit years totaling more than $650 million, despite significant cuts to expenditures in education and social programs. And, those cuts in education had resulted in a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court that schools in the state were unconstitutionally underfunded and would require additional $2 billion annually.

Elections Matter. With the elections of 2010 and 2012, the voters in Kansas spoke loud and clear–they wanted and supported Governor Brownback’s proposal for lower taxes, adding 15 conservatives to the House and eight to the Senate during those elections. However, the 2014 and 2016 elections sent a different message with moderates making significant gains in both chambers (10 in the House and 6 in the Senate). By the beginning of the 2017 session, conservative Republicans no longer held a majority of the seats in either chamber.

Keep Talking. The path to bipartisanship in Kansas was rocky and difficult, and sometimes seemed impossible. However, when nerves were frayed and trust nearly broken conversations continued.  While leaders Denning and Ward seldom saw eye-to-eye, there were more moderate leaders on both sides who often “ran interference” between the various ideological and partisan factions. Also, at a particularly difficult point in the process, a bipartisan group of women legislators began to meet to discuss and examine proposals and eventually put forth several ideas that became part of the final bill, but more importantly, they re-opened bipartisan lines of communications that had been slammed shut earlier.

Everybody Could Claim Some Victory. Like it or not, politics is about winning and with this bill, everyone could claim victory. While they were not particularly happy to support tax increases, conservative Republicans could rightly claim they were restoring fiscal responsibility and reducing state debt, while keeping the tax rates lower than they were prior to the initial tax cuts. Moderate Republicans could point to the reinstatement of several deductions that benefited their middle class base and Democrats were able to increase the tax rage on the wealthy, reinstate the child tax credit and increase spending on education and social programs. Nobody got everything they wanted, but everybody could claim some victory.

Leaders Lead by Example. In the end, the vote to override the governor’s veto was supported, albeit reluctantly by some, by all of the key leaders except for the Senate President. Further, they cast their votes early enough to signal to their members that it was okay to oppose the governor on this critical issue, “When I saw our speaker move to go green, I thought that is probably the biggest sign of a leader we’ve got here in this state,” said one legislator who voted against the initial bill but in favor of the veto override. Even though it meant going against their own party at times, the leaders in this case did what was best for the State of Kansas, setting the example for their members to do the same.

While it might not be pretty, with hard work, leadership, communication and a significant push by circumstances and the voters, even oil and water can come together–and so can Democrats and Republicans!