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SPOTLIGHT
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Kansas' back-door man

Published on -5/4/2014, 12:45 PM

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You learn something new every day.

Last week I learned the Lawrence Arts Center has a back door. Who knew? Well, apparently Sam Brownback when he came to talk to this year's Leadership Kansas class.

This was a mundane presentation, without any news value. What did make news was the governor's tactical entrance and exit, via an alley and the art center's back door. He thus avoided a gaggle of Lawrence teachers, there to protest his signing the legislation that denies due process to teachers across the state.

So, the most powerful Kansan this side of the Koch brothers decided to sneak in and out of the invitation-only event. This action mirrored that of many Kansas senators, who, after voting to eliminate due process, exited through a side entrance to avoid the many teachers gathered in the statehouse.

One core obligation of elected officials is to take responsibility for their actions. When a governor and state legislators avoid the very constituents whose rights they have eliminated, it speaks volumes.

Honestly, what did the governor have to fear from a handful of teachers? What did senators have to fear from the educators who peacefully were protesting at the Capitol?

If this represented a single instance, we might shrug it off. But Kansans have an administration and a Legislature that finds it hard to take responsibility whenever there is pushback. Thus, when state revenues dropped dramatically this week, the governor and Republican legislative leaders rushed to blame the Obama administration.

This is important because Kansas is a small-population state, and its politics are intimate. Brownback often epitomizes such intimacy, strolling the Capitol's halls, chatting with visitors and having his picture taken with dozens of them. It's an amiable, accessible image, to be sure.

Likewise, Kansas lawmakers all can have close relations with their constituents, if they choose. After all, House members represent approximately 23,000 individuals, while senators serve nearly 70,000. Contrast those figures to California, where the numbers are 463,000 (House) and 925,000 (Senate, respectively).

One benefit we should receive from the intimacy of Kansas politics is a powerful sense of accountability, which stands at the heart of a strong democracy.

What does accountability entail? It's pretty simple. We must be able to hold our governor and legislators accountable for their actions, both at the polls and in our everyday interactions -- whether in the Capitol or on the street or in a public forum.

This especially is true when controversial issues are on the table, such as the recent legislation to deny teachers due process of law in contesting a dismissal.

Three examples illustrate the problem. First, the bill itself was fatally flawed in that the due-process provision was inserted into a "must-pass" school finance bill. No legislative hearings took place, and the changes were rammed through.

Second, when Republican Sen. Julia Lynn and Republican Rep. Willie Dove, two proponents of the legislation, had a town hall discussion in mid-April, they did not respond to serious questions about the legislation and summarily ended the meeting so as to avoid the subject.

Finally, there are the governor's actions, constituting the most egregious attack on accountability.

Not only did he disrespect the handful of teachers, there to question his decision to sign the legislation, but he demonstrated exactly how not to be a leader to the Leadership Kansas class.

The teachers at the Lawrence Arts Center represented hundreds of their peers across Kansans. Brownback could have shown the guts and the simple courtesy to defend his action, but he chose the back door.

Kansans will have one more chance to hold him and House members accountable, in just more than six months.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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