The job of lieutenant governor is somewhat of an enigma. Seven states do not have the position. Former Lt. Governor Shelby Smith (1975-79) occasionally quipped that the job’s primary duty was to ascend to the Capitol dome, look north, and sound an alarm for any approaching glaciers. Few Kansans could name the current lt. governor or any former lt. governor. Our current governor, however, may break the mold in this regard.
Former Lt. Governor Mark Parkinson was elevated to the Kansas governorship by the departure of Kathleen Sebelius to the Obama cabinet on April 28, 2009. Prior to Parkinson, only three lt. governors had assumed gubernatorial office as a result of an incumbent’s early departure, and these three served an average of 40 days, at best as temporary caretakers. Parkinson’s 13-month governorship to date can in no way be described as caretaking. Let’s review a few highlights:
• A long-festering sectional dispute over a western Kansas coal-fired electric plant: a settlement is negotiated within one week.
• A $440 million shortfall in state revenues over two years: selective and carefully crafted mid-year budget cuts bring state spending in line with reduced revenues.
• A continued economic downturn projected to drop state revenues by an additional $160 million: a temporary, one-cent sales tax increase staves off further spending cuts.
• A transportation program expires: a new $8.2 billion, ten-year transportation program is enacted.
•A state lagging far behind in utilizing wind, its extraordinary natural resource for energy: Starting at near zero Kansas utilities ramped up to 10 percent of energy production from wind and committed to 20 percent by 2020.
Without an electoral mandate of any kind, Parkinson played the leading role in each of these endeavors and has shown extraordinary skill in balancing politics and policy making, in making short-term adjustments that lead to longer term results for the state.
Parkinson’s quick resolution of the coal plant controversy opened the door to initiatives in renewable energy and related economic development. After settling the conflict—one larger plant instead of two smaller plants, he led more serious discussion of wind energy, and actions on generating capacity, essential transmission facilities, and related turbine manufacturing are underway.
His mid-year budget cuts touched every aspect of state services and softened resistance to a tax increase. Education was cut back to 2006 levels, although the severity of these cuts was somewhat alleviated by federal stimulus funds and tuition increases. Reductions in Medicaid reimbursement were felt by the 19,000 service providers who assist the 300,000 eligible clients. Sizeable cuts in highway maintenance left contractors throughout the state without work. Legislators in every corner of the state likely got an earful from those affected.
Parkinson’s embrace of a temporary, three-year, one-cent sales tax increase also demonstrated political savvy and his preference for clarity. His revenue plan was simple, understandable, and crystal clear from start to finish. Trial balloons for alternative revenue options quickly deflated and fell by the wayside. His sales tax idea held fast and with time gained buoyancy.
Page 2 of 2 - The formal powers granted to the governor of Kansas create the potential for leadership but do not assure leadership. Parkinson’s vow not to seek election as governor may have freed him of political restraints and emboldened his leadership. The gravity of the economic recession may have bolstered his clout. His bi-party character — Republican legislator and party official turned Democrat — may have enhanced his political skills.
Whatever the case, Parkinson drew upon a special mix of personal resources, skills, judgment, and vision to demonstrate state leadership. While not all Kansans agree with his results, he has given Kansas a short but bold and focused governorship and will be leaving the state in better stead than he found it.
Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University and coauthor of a new book on Kansas politics.