Governor Parkinson Pins Successes on Lame Duck Status
Kansas' governor has taken the politics out of lawmaking -- and has had great success so far.
By any reasonable measure, Mark Parkinson has enjoyed a productive run as governor of Kansas. As a Democrat working with a Republican Legislature, he's resolved a long-standing dispute over new coal plants, signed a renewable energy plan and a statewide smoking ban, persuaded lawmakers to pass a temporary sales tax increase to blunt the impact of budget cuts and secured a new 10-year transportation funding plan. He's done all that in 16 months. What's Parkinson's secret? It was, he says, the moment that he decided to become a lame duck.
Parkinson is a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party who became a Democrat when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius asked him to join her ticket as lieutenant governor in 2006. When Sebelius joined the Obama administration last April, he took over as governor.
Sebelius often battled with Republicans in the Legislature, who control 31 of 40 seats in the state Senate and 76 of 125 seats in the state House. Parkinson, a former legislator himself, knew many state legislators quite well. Still, his ability to get anything done depended on working with Republicans who might easily have regarded him as a traitor.
Facing that reality, Parkinson made what he describes as a "strategic decision." Even before he was sworn in as governor, he announced that he wouldn't run for a full-term. He stuck by that decision, despite months of pleas from Democrats to reconsider. Parkinson's insight was that by squelching his candidacy, he could take some of the politics out of lawmaking. "All of the Republicans that would have been obligated to attack me for political reasons really stood down," he says.
That paved the way for a series of bipartisan agreements. The first, on a long-standing coal plant dispute, occurred only hours after Parkinson became governor. The industry wanted two new plants. Sebelius, citing emissions concerns, wanted none. Parkinson agreed to allow one new coal plant, on the condition that lawmakers also mandate the use of renewable energy and invest in conservation.
In contrast, the sales tax increase was a much longer slog. In fall 2009, as Parkinson cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kansas' budget, he began laying out the case that the state needed more revenue to maintain basic public services in the face of the recession. Despite aggressive conservative opposition, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats ultimately agreed this spring to raise the sales tax by one cent on the dollar for the next three years.
While in many states partisan conflicts have escalated, moderate Republicans in Kansas sing the governor's praises. "He has, in my view, done a very good job," says Stephen Morris, president of the Kansas Senate. "He's a person that's truly interested in good public policy and cares deeply about our state."