Area political leaders say they don’t see this month’s elections bringing major political changes to Eastern Jackson County but say they are struck by how much national issues affected local politics and acknowledge challenges ahead, particularly as the Missouri General Assembly gathers in a few weeks with a mostly new delegation this area.

Area political leaders say they don’t see this month’s elections bringing major political changes to Eastern Jackson County but say they are struck by how much national issues affected local politics and acknowledge challenges ahead, particularly as the Missouri General Assembly gathers in a few weeks with a mostly new delegation this area.

“What’s going on in Washington is trickling down to the local level in a way I’ve never seen before,” said Mike Sanders, a Democrat who was handily re-elected Jackson County executive Nov. 2 on a night when Republicans swept nationwide and across the state, including two Missouri House seats they grabbed from Democrats in Eastern Jackson County.

That gives the GOP every House seat from the area except two, the western Independence and Raytown seat held by Tom McDonald and the western Independence and Sugar Creek district that just elected Ira Anders.

“Noland Road is kind of the battle line,” Sanders said.

Still, others don’t see a major change overall. Outgoing state Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, says the area was already solidly Republican, pointing out that the five House districts covered by his Senate District in Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs remain in GOP hands.

The area’s other senator, Democrat Victor Callahan of Independence, points out that on many issues in Jefferson City, lawmakers divide less on party lines than on rural/urban/suburban lines, and he said the area’s lawmakers generally work well together, regardless of party.

“The most notable example would be the school district change,” he said, referring to legislation needed to allow voters to move seven western Independence schools from the Kansas City School District into the Independence School District three years ago.

Sanders echoed that idea. Despite the Republicans’ impressive gathering of seats in the General Assembling – a 106-57 edge in the House and 26-8 in the Senate – “I don’t see really any change in priority,” Sanders said.

“We’ve been able to work very, very well with either party,” he said.

Tough issues ahead

Local leaders do acknowledge continuing headaches for those in office.

“It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. What can you do to make that happen?” said Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross, who served several terms in the House.

Blue Springs, for example, has been pressing Jefferson City for more support for the proposed Missouri Innovation Park, part of an overall strategy of promoting economic development and job growth.

“Because you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that’s the main issues in the country,” he said.

On some key issues:

• SCHOOLS: Although primary and secondary education funding has escaped the worst of the state’s last two years of budget cuts, local leaders have expressed concerns that that can’t last (see related budget story above).

“Yes, I am worried about it,” said Anders, who is leaving the Independence Board of Education for a seat in the House.

Anders said he’s worried about services to the vulnerable being cut, including those most at risk of not finishing school and therefore, over time, demanding more and more government services.

“You’ve got to take care of those kids who are right on the edge,” he said.
Callahan doesn’t see much of a partisan divide.

“I think there’s a big middle on education,” he said.

But the state faces a large shortfall in the budget that will be debated in the spring.

“The (funding) trend has been negative, and there’s no reason to think it will get better anytime soon,” Fort Osage Superintendent Mark Enderle said. At best, he said, projections are that funding will hold steady for the next two years.

On the other hand, if the state were to drop to 85 percent funding of the foundation formula, that would cost Fort Osage alone $5 to $6 million.

“And that’s a game changer,” Enderle said.

“That would fundamentally change what we’re able to do for kids.”

• MISSOURI INNOVATION PARK: Blue Springs leaders envision good-paying life-sciences jobs when the park gets going, but they are looking for state and federal help. Ross said he was concerned about losing U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, who was a steady source of funds for home-state projects and who is retiring. His replacement, Republican Roy Blunt, is already on board with the project, though. Closer to home, so is Callahan, who is minority leader in the state Senate. “I don’t think it’s changed my optimism,” Ross said.

• COUNTY SERVICES: Sanders said the days of Jackson County being able to just absorb state and federal cuts are rapidly ending. For example, the county took a $500,000 hit – and laid off dozens of workers – when the state cut funding for property tax assessments this year. The county will cut overall spending for a fifth straight year in 2011, he said, but the savings of $200,000 or $300,000 are gone and officials are now looking for the cuts of $2,000 to $3,000. In other words, he said, there’s no budget cushion any more.

“We found the money last year, but those days are gone,” he said.

Counties carry out some functions for the state, such as running courts and housing inmates, and Sanders is particularly worried that the state will cut its per diem for inmates – putting criminals on the streets.

“Everything else should be cut before you take a look at those core priorities,” he said.

• COMMUTER RAIL: Sanders says he’s still optimistic about his proposed $1.03 billion commuter rail plan centered at Union Station with lines across the metro. He calls it transformational for the area.

The election shook things up, but on this issue “nothing really changes,” he said.
The county wants federal funds to study the plan’s feasibility, the key step in the process, and is still awaiting word.

Longer term, Sanders points out that the county isn’t seeking stimulus funds like those set aside for high-speed rail. Every four or five years Congress passes a major transportation bill that directs gas tax money to roads, bridges and other modes of transportation. Sanders has been pushing his commuter rail plan for a year and has consistently pointed to an expectation that Congress will designate $30 billion to $50 billion for mass transit. That comes up for action again in 2011. “We need to be in line for it,” he said.

Even with the House going Republican, the county has a chance.

“It’s still a good plan. ... But the timing of the reality is out of our control,” he said.

Learn the ropes

The advice Ross said he’s given the newly elected representatives is straightforward: “Go down there and figure out the landscape.” It’s impossible to master every issue and vital to hone in on the ones you’re good at.

“Find your niche,” he said.

He said he’s not overly concerned with the turnover of area legislators because of term limits. Republican Will Kraus is moving from the House to the Senate (to Bartle’s seat). Republicans Sheila Solon and Jeanie Lauer move into house seats coming from Blue Springs city government.

“Not everybody’s brand new,” Ross said.

Anders is one of few first-time Democrats elected to the House this year, winning handily but by a narrower margin than his Democratic district would have indicated.

“Back in March (running) seemed like a good idea,” he said with a laugh. He said Democrats have to work with Republicans and – acknowledging that leaders in both parties have ruled out tax increases – have to find ways to make government more efficient.

“You know, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know now things are going to play out.”

That big issue – worries about jobs and the economy – still hangs out there.

“We’ve got to be confident that things are going to get better,”  Anders said.

Risks for GOP?

The lines in the state Senate are now sharply drawn: The Democrats have seats only in Kansas City and St. Louis and in close-in suburbs such as Callahan’s, which is mostly in Independence and Sugar Creek. The Republicans have everything else.

“There are no rural Democrats left in the Senate,” Bartle said, and he sees in that a risk for his party and an opportunity for Democrats.

“The bigger a Republican caucus gets ... the more moderate it gets,” he said. When moderates and conservatives split, he said, a small Democratic caucus that sticks together can make the difference on some issues, he said.

And the pendulum swings. Right now, by Bartle’s reckoning, Republicans hold every swing district, which can’t last “unless President Obama continues to pursue a far-left public policy.”

‘A Republican tsunami’

“Well, I think first and foremost … this country experienced a Republican tsunami,” said Ross, but it was a couple of Democrats who had harsh words for their party at the national level – political woes that filtered down to the local level.

“I’m a Democrat, and I’m telling you, from the president on down, they richly deserved this,” Callahan said.

Mostly, they didn’t listen enough to people on the other side, he said.

“There were really good Republican ideas on health care,” he said. “There were really good Republican ideas on stimulus.”

Early in the year, when Democrats were stunned by losing a supposedly safe U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts but still didn’t change their tactics, Callahan said he knew his party was in trouble.

“I would tell the majority in Jefferson City not to make the same mistake,” he said. “People want government to work.”

Sanders, the county executive, sees it about the same way.

“To be very blunt, I think it was all very predictable,” he said.

Voters are frustrated with both parties.

“The Republicans overspent when they were in charge. The Democrats overspent when they were in charge,” he said.

The voters are less concerned about party labels.

“They just want the job done,” Sanders said.

It was out of frustration over jobs and the economy that voters turned to Democrats in 2008, Sanders said.

“People did not fall in love with the Democratic Party,” he said.

And then they swung to Republicans this year.

“Same message,” Sanders said.

Officeholders who don’t hear that and fail to act on critical issues such as spending could likely get bounced by the voters in the future.

“And you know what?” Sanders said. “Deservedly so.”