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Chamber pulls strings, plays puppetmaster

7/28/2013

With the 2013 Kansas legislative session history, talk has turned to 2014. Gov. Sam Brownback's re-election effort will grab most of the headlines, but other important stories will emerge.

To understand the 2014 elections, we have to understand the 2012 elections in context. There was an important group in the background during 2012 that will be more public by default and frame the 2014 elections: the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

The narrative of the 2012 primary elections was that the governor had a purge in mind and the Kansas Chamber gladly provided the resources to knock most of Team Steve Morris out of the Kansas Senate.

Had the Legislature gladly towed the governor's line on budgets and spending in 2013, the narrative would have been supported.

But something odd happened on the way to full control -- the Kansas Chamber decided to pull some strings themselves.

While the governor wanted to extend a sales tax scheduled to sunset this July, many legislators instead wanted to end the sales tax increase and cut spending even deeper than the governor's preferences. Clearly the governor was not in the driver's seat -- the Kansas Chamber of Commerce was.

Most of the targeted candidates in 2012 found themselves off an important list: the chamber's nebulous "Pro-Jobs Legislators" list. Think of the list as a reverse-target list. If you're on the list, you don't have to worry about a primary challenge.

Find yourself off the list, and someone is going to come at you from the right. So when the chamber released its 2013 "pro-jobs" legislators list, it bore a strong resemblance to the 2012 primary endorsements list. The bloc of votes in both chambers that has been most consistent is the group loyal to the chamber of commerce more so than even to Cedar Crest.

What does the list of favored legislators by the chamber tell us?

First, while the governor might want a glide path to zero taxes, the chamber is willing to let the path nosedive instead of glide. Caught between a bloc of cut-first, ask-questions-later representatives and a state that values spending in the right places (K-12, higher education, roads) Gov. Brownback finds himself in a very uncomfortable spot.

At least we can assume this is about taxes. Unlike most interest groups who make public endorsements and funnel money to campaigns, the chamber of commerce does not release its list of key votes by legislators or the percentage of the time each legislator voted with the chamber.

While the chamber's website says a legislator must vote at least 80 percent of the time consistent with the chamber's vague "Legislative Agenda," we do not know which votes are key for them or what percentage of the time each supposedly pro-jobs legislator sided with the chamber.

When I asked spokesperson Emily Mitchell for the list of votes and percentages, she refused even to tell me if legislators had to vote one way or another on the sales tax bill to be considered "pro-jobs," instead offering "If legislators that are not on our pro-jobs list review their voting record, they will most likely be able to identify important votes to the business community that they did not make."

Secrecy appears to be an ever-advancing trend in state government, both by elected officials and those that help certain ones get elected. One thing is for sure, though: We will know by the 2014 primary election filing deadline whom the chamber supports -- but not necessarily why.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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