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PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Jim Denning & Jim Ward 2017 HONOREE

Senate Majority Leader & House Minority Leader, Kansas


(David Kidd)

 

By the beginning of 2017, most politicians in Kansas recognized that the state’s “real live experiment” with tax reduction had failed. Following passage in 2012 of a large tax cut and economic restructuring package, state revenue shortfalls had become a constant, while the promised increases in jobs and businesses never materialized. 

But ending the failed experiment and restoring fiscal responsibility was never going to be an easy sell. Gov. Sam Brownback, the architect of the tax-cut regime, had made it clear that he would not sign any legislation to roll it back. After Brownback vetoed an initial attempt in February, and the legislature failed to override him, it became certain that a two-thirds majority would be required.

It wasn’t clear where the additional votes would come from. The Kansas Legislature is split into three parties -- Democrats, conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans. Conservatives had lost seats to both of the other groups in 2016, but there were still enough of them around to matter, particularly in the state Senate. “All along the way, there was a core group of Democrats and Republican moderates who supported a new tax policy in some form and never wavered from that,” says University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller, “but they didn’t have enough votes to override.”

The House Women’s Caucus ended up playing a key role in summoning up the needed votes, hosting sessions that allowed legislators to air their concerns and priorities, and helping to give the final bill its ultimate form. But it was two legislative leaders, one in each chamber, who ultimately got the job done. “If you get a Jim Denning and a Jim Ward, then you get everything in between, too,” says Ward, the 58-year-old Democratic leader in the Kansas House.

Denning, the conservative Senate majority leader, concedes that raising taxes is “nothing that I’m proud of,” but he recognized that the 2012 cuts, which he had supported, had gone too far. Notably, the elimination of taxes on sole proprietorships and limited liability corporations, which created loopholes to “pass through” individual income, had clearly been abused. “I knew we needed to do something to get Kansas back on sound financial footing,” says the 61-year-old Denning. “We were taking on water.”

Denning and Ward disagreed about a number of other issues, such as the number of individual tax brackets and whether to make any tax increases retroactive. But they were eventually able to find agreement, bringing enough of their caucuses with them to override another Brownback veto in June. “The main MVP ended up being bipartisanship,” says Heidi Holliday, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.

Or perhaps that should be tripartisanship. With most major bills, it’s clear who’s most responsible for passage, whether it’s a bill sponsor, committee chair or chamber leader. In the Kansas case, it took initiatives from all three major factions -- and the political leadership of Denning and Ward -- to find the votes within each subgroup and overturn a policy that had hampered the state.

Voters aren’t happy about paying higher taxes, and no lawmakers want to be the one to raise them. But the legislature ultimately had no choice. “Most Kansans look at it that way,” Ward says. “There had to be adjustments in the tax policy because it was bankrupting the state.” 

 -- By Alan Greenblatt

 

See the rest of the 2017 public officials here.