Just who and what are you voting for?
With their approval ratings in the mid- and low-30s, respectively, Sam Brownback and Kris Kobach are two of the least popular politicians in Kansas. So why have they been so successful in getting their agendas through the Kansas Legislature? On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of 25 or so area residents gathered at a downtown Salina restaurant looking for an answer to this question.
The presenter was Louis Goseland, the Director of Organizing for the Sunflower Community Action Group. His principal focus was the American Legislative Exchange Council, one of the many libertarian-leaning groups bankrolled by David and Charles Koch. The group's membership is known to include prominent members in leadership positions in our Legislature as well as at least two known adherents from the local legislative delegation.
Goseland appropriately started out his presentation with photos of the Koch brothers and then proceeded to a list of the many front groups they bankroll with innocuous-sounding names such as the Kansas Policy Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, etc. All of these groups receive Koch funding and direction.
He then proceeded to focus on ALEC, a group of state legislators dedicated to conservative causes founded nearly 40 years ago by political activist Paul Weyric. Weyric, for example, was an early champion of voter suppression laws long before anyone had heard of Kris Kobach. One can watch an old video clip of Weyric on YouTube expounding on how "our leverage in elections goes up as turnout goes down."
ALEC's profile has been elevated in recent years, because the Koch brothers and other like-minded libertarians and corporate interests perceive state legislatures as a path of least resistance in terms of implementing their legislative agendas.
What is their agenda? It starts with a shifting of the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle and lower classes and proceeds through a laundry list of libertarian causes -- defunding public education, voter suppression, anti-immigrant laws, extreme gun laws, the privatization of public services, weakened environmental laws and efforts to strip teachers and workers of bargaining rights. Hundreds of pieces of model legislation have emerged from ALEC, much of which has been introduced verbatim in state legislatures across the country.
Prior to the last election, there were at least 46 known members of ALEC in the Kansas Legislature. The wrapup session of this year's Legislature was reportedly delayed a week so a large group of members could attend the ALEC convention in Oklahoma. Those returning from the meeting tried, among other things to push through an ALEC proposal to suspend implementation of federal Common Core standards for public education, a push that almost succeeded.
Attention then was shifted at the seminar to 24th District state Sen. (and former Kris Kobach campaign treasurer) Tom Arpke and 69th District Rep. Jeremy Claeys, area legislators who have attended ALEC conferences, and their voting records. Not surprisingly, the two have voted lockstep with both ALEC and the other Koch front groups during their legislative tenures. The role of outside money in Sen. Arpke's Republican primary victory last fall is now widely known. Not as well-known is the fact Claeys won his 69th District house seat without a single 69th District resident's name appearing on his campaign donor list during the calendar year 2012.
One thing can be said for these two politicians. They have been loyal in the Legislature to those who funded their campaigns -- the Koch brothers and their front groups, including ALEC. Whether that agenda reflects the desires of local residents is an open question.
It should be noted ALEC enjoys a 501(c)3 tax status as a charitable organization. Groups with such a designation are required to refrain from political activity. Clearly, our tax laws have loopholes the Koch brothers want to maintain.
The push to improve our democratic process will involve similar efforts to put the spotlight on groups such as ALEC. More transparency is required so citizens know what and who they are really voting for when they enter the voting booth.
Alan Jilka is a businessman and former mayor of Salina.