This week (Jan. 13), I’ll have the pleasure and privilege of once again studying the Kansas Legislature with 25 or so KU interns. The Legislature has developed a first-rate intern program, and students from many universities have great opportunities to study how laws are made (or not), how funds are allocated, and how legislators represent their constituents.


    This week (Jan. 13), I’ll have the pleasure and privilege of once again studying the Kansas Legislature with 25 or so KU interns. The Legislature has developed a first-rate intern program, and students from many universities have great opportunities to study how laws are made (or not), how funds are allocated, and how legislators represent their constituents.
    One of my first questions to my students is: Who sets the state policy agenda? In some ways it’s a trick question in that there is no single agenda, but rather a variety of them. Still, the question is worth asking, especially this year, in the aftermath of the overwhelming GOP victories in the November elections.
    The most obvious answer is the governor, and Sam Brownback certainly took on the role of agenda-setter in his State of the State address, stating repeatedly, “The days of ever-expanding government are over.” Both his address and the next day’s budget back up this generalization.
    With 2,000 job cuts, various administrative consolidations and substantial reductions in K-12 funding, along with many other proposals, the SOS and budget outline his version of a pro-economic growth agenda, along with a smattering of social programs and digs at conservative targets, like the Kansas Arts Commission.
    But governors, even those with large party majorities behind them, cannot completely control the agenda. The newly elected and frisky Republicans in the House have ideas of their own — and of the highly conservative Republicans they generally represent. So we get “English-only” official documents, the repeal of casino gambling, the roll-back of last year’s one-cent sales tax, opposition to legislation limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and on and on.
    The idea that these folks can out-flank Brownback on the right is remarkable, but certainly in the ballpark. Indeed, the old-line GOP conservatives have now been labeled “middle conservatives” to differentiate them from the Tea Party types who seek a truly radical approach to addressing the myriad real and imagined ills of Kansas policies.
    But wait, there are more agenda setters. Individual legislators, lobbyists and group representatives all have their own ideas, as do editorialists and career bureaucrats, many of whom will aggressively address prospective cuts and changes. Moreover, the handful of Topeka reporters often can’t cover all the agenda items, and so many issues go through the legislative process under the radar screen, essentially unreported.
    Finally, governors and Tea Party supporters and interest groups and editorialists must all bow down to two overwhelming influences on any given year’s agenda.
    Even a small-government guy like Sam Brownback has to acknowledge the power of the federal government to set the agenda for large parts of state policy, such as Medicaid. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in looking across dozens of issue areas, from education to transportation to the environment.
    And then there is the biggest gorilla in the room: the cumulative decisions (or lack thereof) from decades of lawmaking. As Governor Brownback noted on K-12 funding: “The interesting part about it — and this is kind of the sad part about it — the total budget goes up, even if the per-pupil goes down, which tells you you’re not getting as much to the classroom. You’re getting more that’s going to fund the buildings and the teacher retirement.”
    In the end, the Legislature’s past decisions not to fund KPERS, to create separate capital budgets, and dozens of other decisions do more to set the state’s agenda than anything a governor can do in a single year. But over four — or eight — years, the chief executive’s potential is great. So buckle your seat belts, Kansans. There is a new sheriff in town, with a whole new team of deputies.