Women's Caucus Played Pivotal Role In Restoring Sanity To Kansas Statehouse

06/15/2017 06:39 pm ET
Mark Reinstein via Getty Images

The Kansas Statehouse is one of the most ornate in the country. For a while, wherever my family traveled – New Hampshire, Tennessee, Massachusetts, New Mexico – we made a point of visiting capitol buildings to see how they compared with ours.

Kansas is a parsimonious state, where the legislature is not given to investing in public beauty, and yet legislators okayed the $325 million restoration project. One day recently, 109 schoolchildren from Gardner, Kansas, on a field trip, found places to stand or sit on the ground-floor marble map of Kansas with all 105 counties depicted. The Statehouse truly belongs to all the state’s residents.

I live a mile and a half from the Kansas Capitol in an historic central Topeka neighborhood. In early February, on an uncharacteristically warm Sunday, I was raking leaves out of the gutter when my Democratic state senator and neighbor, Laura Kelly, walked by. I asked her about the legislative session.

She observed that the moderate Republicans who were elected in November 2016 were more progressive than the moderates who lost their seats to conservatives in 2012. She said she was having fun and working harder because legislators were collaborating.

And yet by the time the legislature took their adjournment April 7, that collaboration had collapsed. The House had passed a tax reform bill with a veto-proof margin, but the Senate was three votes short. Similarly, the legislature was unable to override Governor Sam Brownback’s veto of expanded Medicaid coverage.

With this stubborn ideologue still in the governor’s office in our stately capitol, someone more invested in his red-state experiment than in pragmatic politics, even with 55 freshman lawmakers, progress seemed stuck.

Shortly after Memorial weekend, on a visit to the Capitol during the veto session, I met Rep. Cindy Holscher, a freshman Democrat from Overland Park. I asked her why so little had been accomplished. She named roadblocks but said the conversation was lively.

Holscher did not tip her hand that she was one of the leaders of a Women’s Caucus that had been meeting around the clock to move the needle on a comprehensive tax reform bill that finally passed on June 6 with veto-proof majorities.

After the legislature finally adjourned, I called Sen. Kelly to ask about the Women’s Caucus. She said it was “organic” and started with women in the House. She was invited when the group was recruiting support from the Senate side. She said she walked into a room with about 50 people, male and female, Democrats and Republicans. She said the ring-leaders were well-organized, and had flip-charts.

When I interviewed Rep. Holscher later that morning, she said Rep. Monica Murnan, a Democrat from southeast Kansas, was the one with the flip-charts. But she herself has a background in management at Sprint. When she arrived at the legislature she wondered, “Where are the dry erase boards?”

She described the genesis of the Women’s Caucus. There were three rows on the House floor with female representatives who talked frequently across party lines. When legislative business stalled, people retreated and stopped talking.

One day an idea floated within a group of these female legislators. They would leave the building for lunch, and bring back pieces of paper with three things they’d like to accomplish. The group cohered and began meeting, and eventually invited men and committee heads. Rep. Holscher said she likes to say: “We have to draw the circle wide.”

Sen. Kelly said the tax plan the Women’s Caucus crafted was more progressive than the one that passed. Still, the final bill accomplishes significant reforms. It closes the so-called “LLC-loophole” that granted doctors, farmers and business owners income tax exemptions, while their employees continued paying taxes. It also restored the three-tier personal income tax structure, upping rates. The Kansas City Star reported that the inclusion of a child care tax credit won 10 more Democratic votes. The bill was veto-proof, passing the House 88-31, and the Senate, 27-13.

So you could say the Women’s Caucus and their flip-charts flipped the atmosphere, or that the class of freshman lawmakers, one-third new faces, made the difference. Or you could also say that inside and outside the Statehouse, folks were tired of letting an entrenched ideologue call the shots.

Again, and dramatically this session, our Statehouse belongs to all of us.

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