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Interview of Ed McKechnie, February 9, 2024

Interviewed by Chris Courtwright
Interview Description

This lengthy and wide-ranging interview is full of interesting stories about how the legislature worked when its leaders realized the House Democrats were in the majority by one vote (1990 election) with a new Democratic governor. The 1991-92 session was historic because of the major changes in property taxes and school finance. McKechnie built relationships across the aisle which helped him accomplish things and pass legislation. His interview is replete with descriptions of legislators with whom he worked. McKechnie served on the Kansas Bioscience Authority and after its demise, on the Kansas Board of Regents. He discussed the transition of the University of Kansas Hospital to being designated a major cancer center. One particularly interesting story for football fans is about the major conference realignment that occurred from 2011 to 2012. He described in detail the negotiations over which university would stay or leave the Big XII. Ordinarily the Regents would not have been involved, but the impact of these decisions was too great to ignore. McKechnie also talks about the decisions the Regents made about raising tuition.

Interviewee Biographical Sketch

Ed McKechnie served as a Democratic member of the Kansas Legislature from 1991-2001 representing the Pittsburg area. He was a member of the Kansas Bioscience Authority Board from 2007 to 2010, also serving as its Treasurer. Governor Parkinson appointed him to the Kansas Board of Regents from 2010 to 2014 where he served as chair from 2011-2012. He also served as Chief Commercial Officer for WATCO, a short-line railroad in the Pittsburg area from 2001-2018. Since that time he has worked as a business development consultant for the education, railroad and energy sectors and has been involved with public policy development initiatives in those areas. McKechnie graduated from Pittsburg State University in 1986.

Transcript

Chris Courtwright: Good afternoon. Today is February 9, 2024 in the afternoon, and we’re here in the historic House Chamber at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka. I’m Chris Courtwright who served for thirty-four years working as an economist for the Kansas Legislature in its nonpartisan Research Department before retiring in 2020. For full disclosure, Governor Kelly appointed me shortly thereafter to her bipartisan Council on Tax Reform, and I currently serve as a board member for a bipartisan 501 c 4 public-policy-based organization known as Kansans First.

Today I’m privileged to interview former Representative Ed McKechnie who has had a long, distinguished, and diverse career in public service. In addition to serving as a Democratic member of the Kansas Legislature from 1991 to 2001 representing the Pittsburg area, he was a member of the Kansas Bioscience Authority Board from 2007 to 2010, and a member of the Kansas Board of Regents from 2010 to 2014 – including a year as its Chair during a particularly tumultuous time which I think we can get into a little bit later.

Opting not to run in the 2000 election, you became for some seventeen years the Chief Commercial Officer for Watco based there in Pittsburg, which is a critically important company that offers integrated services of short-line railroads, terminals, and ports for various transportation modes and markets. Since 2017, you’ve been a business development consultant for the education, railroad, and energy sectors, and also stayed involved with any number of public policy development initiatives.

A longtime resident of Southeast Kansas, Ed is a proud Gorilla who graduated from Pittsburg State University in 1986. Did I get most of that right?

EM: Man, that sounds great. I hope I live up to it.

CC: This interview with Mr. McKechnie is conducted on behalf of the Kansas Oral History Project, a not-for-profit corporation created for the purpose of interviewing former legislators and significant leaders in state government, particularly those who have served in the 1960s and subsequent decades. The interviews will be accessible to researchers, educators, and the public through the KOHP website, ksoralhistory.org, and also the Kansas Historical Society and the State Library. Transcriptions are made possible as a result of the generosity of the KOHP donors. Former Speaker Pro Tem David Heinemann is our videographer.

During your decade in the legislature, and I suppose it demonstrates your jack-of-all-trades diverse skill set that you served on so many different committees, but looking over those records, I guess some of the highlights jumped out to me was that you chaired the Joint Committee on Special Claims; you vice-chaired the House Computers, Communication, and Technology Committee; and were a member of the always prominent and powerful House Appropriations Committee. You also spent around nine years on Legislative Post Audit. I hope I cherrypicked most of the top ones since there’s quite a few others on your list.

EM: Absolutely. I got on Post Audit kind of by accident the first year, and it gave me a different look to the world. In some ways, it gave me kind of that ability to look ahead because you’d get an audit done in June, and all of a sudden know what the hot issues were going to be for the next legislative session. So it was a great place to learn surrounded by really smart people.

CC: Before we delve more into your legislative years and committee work and big issues and whatnot, let’s get into some additional background. Are you a native Kansan? If not, when did your family move here?

EM: We moved here in 1969. So I was born in Wyoming. My mom moved to Pittsburg. My dad lived in Southern Arizona. So I would fly back and forth, but pretty much Kansan since ’69. That’s where I identify from.

CC: When I first met you in the late 1980s, not long after you got out of college, you were a legislative staffer for former House Democratic leader, Marvin Barkis, if memory serves, and at some point during those years, you also were briefly a Congressional staffer for Congressman Dan Glickman. Is that correct?

EM: Yes. So I started out in [Governor John] Carlin’s office. I was working on the [Tom] Docking [gubernatorial] campaign. It was a race we couldn’t lose, and we somehow ended up losing it to then-Speaker Mike Hayden. But that was where my first job with Tom Laing and a lot of those relationships just intertwined over the years.

So I spent time – after Mike Hayden became governor – I went back to DC or a while. I figured out that I probably really enjoyed public service more than I first realized and wanted to get back into it. So I moved back closer, and then, sitting here in this Chamber, decided I was going to run for the legislature and did.

CC: It seems that the politics and public-service bug had been in your blood from a fairly early age. Can we start there? Can you tell us if your family had any kind of history in politics and maybe whether you had a mentor or a favorite college professor or anything who encouraged you to start down this very interesting career path?

EM: So my dad was on the State Board of Agriculture in Wyoming, and there was no TV, and there were no radios. So we talked about politics from as early as I can remember. And then I got involved in high school. I was student council president, and then just enjoyed talking to people, learning about how things worked, and how the high school worked, and would show up and ask questions at some different times.

Then really I was kind of the luckiest guy. I get to admit today that my political godmother was Joyce Allegrucci. She coached me through those early years, and I can still remember a whole bunch of conversations that I had, very specific things asking questions about—when I filed to run for office, I was only twenty-six, and I looked like I was about nineteen. I was skinny and had brown hair and no matter how much I ate, I was losing weight because I was walking so much every night. That was really where it came from.

CC: Were other members of the House Democratic Caucus for whom you worked excited about your own entry into the 1990 race? And then before we get into specifics of your first term where you were going to go on to serve as part of the House Majority, could you tell us about that 1990 race and who it was against and how close it was?

EM: Yes. I think people were—we were doing well. That was a seat we had to pick up in order to gain space. So my former boss was Tom Laing.  So he was leading the Democrats’ efforts on election. So I had to run against a guy named John Lair and then Frank Vallamaria, and Frank’s son was like one of my best friends in high school. So lots of local politics there. I knew all these different families and all these people. They’re hard things to do, but I was excited to run. I went to bed on Election Night not knowing that we were the majority -and didn’t know that until the next day.

The primary was interesting. I don’t think I would have won the general if I hadn’t had a primary. What that primary did was get me up, get me moving.

CC: Toughened you up.

EM: I really went out and knocked on a lot of doors. That’s where I really figured out that that was an important thing. Both John and I were civil to each other in the campaign, and we still see each other today and shake hands and say hello. His son’s very active in Special Olympics in the state. It was just a great experience for me in that first election, figuring out that getting elected wasn’t the easiest thing to do.

CC: Were there any people you ran across during this first time you were running your own campaign who you interacted with and stayed in touch with over the years? This must have been a unique kind of experience for you.

EM: So, yes. There’s a lot of things you remember from those campaigns. The first $500 check I got was from a guy by the name of Gary Sherrer who ended up—he was a lobbyist for Bank IV and ended up being Lieutenant Governor, and then I served with him on the Board of Regents. So from the summer of ’90 for literally thirty years, our lives kept intertwining with each other and in and out of public policy when he became Lieutenant Governor.

It was a long, long relationship knowing a lot of people. I think one of the things I realized early on is how round the world is. A lot of people burn bridges and destroy relationships, and I remember Fred Logan was Chair of the Republican Party. He and I got into a couple of roundabouts out in the rotunda; and then [he] was probably my best confidante when he was appointed to the Board [of Regents] by [Governor] Sam Brownback. So those relationships made both of us trust each other better, made us more effective when we were doing some heavy lifting later in life.

CC: That’s fascinating. On Election Night, you did not know that your party had taken the House for just the third time in state history, but it sunk in within the next day or two.

EM: There really was a—it was monumental because that was one of the first tectonic shifts in Kansas politics. What you had there was a populist effort that was out there that was about property taxes. And [Governor] Joan Finney had zeroed in and had run an extraordinarily good campaign. There were some voters that were disenfranchised who simply didn’t vote. And so when you look at what Kansas looked like that next morning, almost all of Southeast Kansas were represented by Democrats, and today [there are] none.

So that was a huge shift. I don’t think anyone thought going into that morning that we were going to pick up that many seats. It was a surprise.

CC: I’m guessing coming in that you may have had a leg up on some of your class of 1990 freshman colleagues, given that you’d already been in the Statehouse and knew the key lobbyists and power brokers and legislative rules and protocols, thanks to your days as a staffer in Barkis’ office. You sort of felt like you were ready to hit the ground running?

EM: Yes, but you know, everybody gets up and thinks they’re probably more ready than they are. So you learn a lot, and there’s a lot of humility that goes into it because really the legislature is an extension of Kansas, right? So we do everything from dental hygienists to mortuaries and everything. So the things I wanted to talk about were higher education and property taxes and roads and schools. Then what you figure out is yes, that’s fine. You can talk about those things, but there’s four thousand other things that are important also, and you’re always trying to find that balance of putting time in, and there are only so many people and so many committees that are doing those things. So, yes, you think you’re going to come in and save the world. You’ve got to figure out you’ve got to take a few steps at a time to do that.

CC: Absolutely. Let’s get into that first term in the 1991 and ’92 sessions, which must have really been something for you. As you just noted, Democrats, as a result of that 1990 election, had taken control of the House, albeit with a slim margin. And as you said, you came in as part of the majority party during this time. The state had just undergone a major property tax revolt. Incoming Democratic Governor Joan Finney, as you just noted, had gotten elected at least in part because both of her predecessors, Governors Carlin and Hayden, had been blamed for the property tax reappraisal and classification upheavals of the 1980s. Can you expand a little bit more on what that environment was like?

EM: Yes. I always got along great with Joan Finney, and one of those reasons was because her treasurer was our County Chairman Frank Dunnick. So I was young. Sometimes I would do things that would annoy some people, and I was young enough at that time that people would say, “He meant well,” and I would get through it. I still wish I was that young to get away with some of those things. But I always got along great with Governor Finney, and in some ways, there was a few times ended up being an unwelcome mediary between her and Marvin Barkis who kind of crossed swords at different times on different bills. Jim Garner, who was from Coffeyville – he and I ended up in the Governor’s Office three or four times, and she would be talking to us, explaining what it is she wanted, and then we would come upstairs and explain it. It was funny watching the dynamic because neither the Governor nor the Speaker at that time thought anybody needed to be explaining anything to them. So we were there, and it was fun to do.

CC: You were the emissaries even as a freshman legislator.

EM: And at times unwelcome. But it was a great learning experience. We were in the Governor’s Office one time, talking about reapportionment, and she sat down. Lee Hamm was retiring, and she knew that. She was going to appoint him to a job over in the Department of Agriculture. Lee hadn’t told anybody, but he had told the Governor. They had this deal, and she couldn’t tell anyone up here. So she told Jim and I but then told us we couldn’t tell anybody.

Then she said—she moved around. She said, “I want to do something over here with Lee Hamm’s district.” And then she got up and left and walked back into her office and did some stuff. And Jim and I just sat there. We were kind of explaining how difficult that was, and then her daughter Mary just kind of look at us like—because we stopped. Obviously the Governor got up and left. And Mary’s kind of like rolling her hand like, “Just keep going. She’s hearing you. My mom’s listening to you. Remember, she’s been a mother. She knows exactly what she’s doing.” We figured out she knew exactly what she was doing. And then we’d kind of explained it to Mary. Then the Governor came back and said, “Okay. So we’re all clear on this, right?” Jim and I just looked at each other. There’s no way on earth that we are understanding what’s happening right now, but we’ll go try and figure this out. It was a good experience, great memories.

CC: Absolutely. Along the same lines, I know the Democratic margin in the House was very small. I can’t remember whether it was 64-61 or 63-62. The Senate in the early nineties I think was 22-18 Republican, and Governor Finney who had been State Treasurer and more of a political outsider and a populist as you had indicated, had defeated both of her predecessors – one from each party – at the ballot box in 1990. So I’m guessing the 1991 and ’92 sessions must have seemed to be a very dynamic time in terms of policymaking given that very competitive bipartisan balance and a Governor who had come in being a little outside the mainstream of her own party. Is that fair?

EM: Yes. So the other thing is, I think Joan Finney knew she was going to win. She got up every day believing she was going to win, but nobody else did. So that transition took a long time to start. Actually we changed the law to actually create a transition office not too long thereafter because we didn’t even get the Governor’s budget until late January. So we were here for like three weeks. Normally you get the Governor’s budget in like the first week. So we were off to a slow start. It’s the third time in history. We had only like two people, which I think was Bill Reardon and Anthony Hensley, had been in the previous majority who tried to tell everybody how much work this was going to be.

And it was a huge amount of work planning out the agenda and what you want to get done and managing floor time and incredible personalities. So the core of that—there were two things about that first two years is the people that Marvin had created, had elected and gotten tracked to the House were amazing people. So [Kathleen] Sebelius, [Joan] Wagnon, Bill Roy, Carol Sader, Gary Blumenthal, I mean, just all of them policy titans, and George Teagarden.  Literally, there were sixty-three people that loved every one of them.  You were together.

And then we had my other office mate. So there’s Jim Garner and I together from Southeast Kansas, and we had Tom Love. And Tom was our 63rd guy. And Tom was a populist, right? He was naturally suspicious. If everyone’s voting for this, why are they voting for it?

So one of the things we got assigned was to coach Tom in this whole process, but Tom was not coachable, and he did not want to be coached. So it was 62—the House was really 62-62 and Tom. And then we would have to work around Tom.

In reality, there were many times it was an incredible power that one person would have. I remember there were some public policy things on school finance. We had several former administrators and several former school board members that simply were not going to allow us to do everything that we wanted to do in a school finance bill. All you had to do was get one of them to say they weren’t going to vote for it, and that just stopped everything.

And the Republicans were very good about forcing us to get to 63 before they would vote for it. They would sit on the north side of the aisle and wait until we would get Love to vote yes or Jack Wempe or Mel Minor. There were three or four guys that were making sure we didn’t go too far. That was that part of that moderate bent to the House that was very much omnipresent in that.

CC: In that era, on the subject of school finance, I know it’s been said that one of the key pieces of legislation during the latter half of the previous century was the historic rewrite of the state school finance law in 1992. What recollections do you have of all the effort and the dozens, if not hundreds of different versions of that legislation that were under consideration during the 1992 session?

EM: So actually you’ve got to start in ’91. We passed the school finance bill. We did not do a good job on it. We told ourselves we did. The Governor vetoed it, and everybody lost their mind. But she was right. The Governor should have vetoed that bill because we hadn’t done our best work. And nobody wants to be told that. We were dinking around. It felt like it was almost June by the time we adjourned because we had this special session, not a special session, but the veto session, we actually passed the first budget in the veto session. We didn’t even get the first budget passed until then.

So you veto school finance and then you go right into summer interims. To Marvin’s credit, what Marvin was good at doing was being patient with other people. He could doodle. He could sit there and listen. What he would do is he would go put smart people in a room and tell them to go talk it out, and he would force people to stay and listen. So you’ve got Wagnon. You’ve got Rick Bowden, and you’ve got other people that were all in there.

Of course, at that time, I think we had in that majority three or four folks from Johnson County. A Democrat from Johnson County at the time was a very rare thing. Of course, now again that’s shifted also.

But Shawnee Mission Public Schools were a big driver in the school finance bill. They were the ones that decided a whole bunch of things because they had I think the largest legislative delegation by far in the state. So if there was going to be change, you had to make Gary Blumenthal happy, which was not an easy thing to do because he was extraordinarily passionate. He was a teacher in schools. So he knew what teachers were going through, and he was extremely effective.

I remember coming upstairs at the ’92 session where we ended up with the local option budget, and that was a compromise to get the Johnson County guys on. We got back in—I’m very proud of the fact I’m now elected on the local school board, and we’re still operating off of the same skeleton of school finance. It’s different. There are some things that the legislature has added, a lot of good things they’ve added. But we’re on the same skeleton of what we passed in ’92, and it served the state very well. It made it fairer for all kids to give them a chance to learn.

CC: Okay. Before we jump ahead in time, I do want to ask you about sharing the Claims Committee. A lot of legislators and staffers who have worked on that panel over the years have had amusing stories to tell about claims against the state, most of which would end up not being paid, that people were seeking to get shoehorned into the annual claims bill. First of all, can you give us a quick lay description better than the one I just did about what the Claims Committee does, and then any funny or memorable anecdotes that you can recall from when you were the Chair?

EM: Well, there were several, but the most important one was that’s where I learned to count on people like you. The staffer you had for that was Bill Wolff who is maybe—he’s like the perfect—no offense—he’s like the perfect legislative researcher, right? Everything he did was always perfect, and he was coachable. And he coached everyone. He walked them through. He saw things through the neutral lens of being an educator. So that’s where I kind of really got that door open. I knew people like Ben Barrett and Alan Conroy, and I talked to them. But then you start going down to the deeper level into the agency and really start and work with individual staffers.

So I’m like twenty-eight years old and chairing a committee, and there’s a whole bunch of Republican legislators from the Senate. They’re like, “Who in the wide world of sports put you in charge of this? And why should you be in charge of anything?”

The other thing is, the Claims against the state is a very important committee because it’s a court of equity. We’re not supposed to decide right and wrong. What we’re supposed to do was decide what was fair. It was fair in our opinion.

So we weren’t stuck on precedent. We weren’t stuck on what should have happened or could have happened or anything else. Our job was to figure out what should happen at that moment in time. So there were times where we had a couple of ones that were just heartbreaking.  You had a couple of inmates that were wrongly accused. There was one in particular I remember where the sheriff and the county attorney both knew they were prosecuting the wrong person, and they knew the person was innocent, but they had decided in their mind the guy was guilty of something, and this was okay. So that’s one that took three, four hours of hearing that we’re sitting there, and you’re just sitting there, “What an incredible injustice.”

So government can be very freeing in this country when it’s done right. And government can be un-freeing when it’s wrong. One of the couple of things I learned was about the same time I got on Legislative Post Audit was where I learned where legislative committees in particular can be incredibly powerful for asking questions and holding people accountable.

I do think that one of the things that I in particular saw early on with the legislature is that colleagues would support each other, and that the enemy was the bureaucracy. Holding the bureaucracy accountable and asking questions, whether you agreed with the question or not, most of the time, most legislators would all stand together and say, “You’ve got to answer it. You’ve got to tell us the truth, and we’re going to hold you accountable for it” – because if you don’t, then they cannot afford you the same information the next day.

And that would be also where I ended up on the Rules Committee later on in life, a couple of years later, and spent a lot of time with everyone who was Speaker, minority leaders, and trying to do a fair use of the rules because the rules could be used against you or for you. I always wanted them to be done justly and fairly.

CC: Understood. Staying in the early nineties, we recall that during the 1992 election, even though Democrat Bill Clinton is elected president, Republicans locally did take the Kansas House Chamber back by a few seats, moving you to the minority side of the aisle for the ’93-’94 biennium, which would also turn out to be the last years in office for Governor Finney. I always thought she was such an interesting figure politically. You’ve gotten into a little of this. If you could, any more thoughts you have characterizing your own relationship with her, not to mention her relationship with your caucus as well as the full legislature?

EM: So one of the things I learned from Joan Finney is always go into the restaurant in the back door and thank the cook and say hello to people. I still enjoy talking to people. I’ll have people there with my family or just watch me just wander around a restaurant and talk to people. I watched Joan Finney do that. What she would be able to do was remember people that she had met, and she would always remember faces and connect with them. So I very, very much enjoyed that part of her. It was always fun.

She would have a lot of ideas, and she was not much into process. She was much more into action and doing. So there would be times when she would all of a sudden make an announcement on the front page of the paper. You’d read about it, “Okay, we have a new agenda item,” and none of us were ready for it, but it was good. It was healthy. She represented what the people wanted at that time, and I think she did a very good job.

I don’t think we were really ready. Quite honestly, we had two years where the Democrats had literally exhausted themselves in the Chamber, and probably had we done less, we might have stayed in the majority one more round. Some people retired, and then quite frankly, people were just so exhausted and went home. When we did pass the school finance bill, we were also working in the transportation space with the transportation bill. There was an exhaustion of “I don’t know how much more I can do this” with some of our older members. And then a couple of those guys got picked off. We dropped to 59.

But that was also the rise of the conservative movement. What I would say is while I was only in a working majority, only barely, for two years, we were an effective majority my next eight years also because we were always working between the moderates and conservatives, and then Governor Graves to do public policy.

So the caucus was very bright. We had a lot of smart people in there. And we did a number of things, working with both the conservatives and the moderates on the Republican side for public policy that’s still in effect today.

CC: Are there any other interesting characters or personalities you recall from the early nineties in particular? How well did legislative leadership get along with one another in this era? Also I know that you served in the House as you mentioned earlier during this period with future Governor Kathleen Sebelius before she ran for Insurance Commissioner in 1994. What are your recollections of her as a lawmaker? Did you know she had a bright political future?

EM: Yes, so Sebelius was great. You know, she’d come from a political family. She married a political family. And all throughout life, the smart people, you could really just tell because they were several steps ahead of you, but she was one of those that told me to quit being so political sometimes and really dive into policy.

On that advice, I really dove deep on a few times. And when Tim Shallenburger got elected Speaker, I was in the district next door to him. Him and I always got along. We would go do coffees together when we weren’t up here. We would do some of those things. We never vacationed or anything like that together, but politically we weren’t that far apart on most issues. There were a couple we are, but not that far apart. So Tim, I got on Rules when Tim was Speaker, and a lot of times, Tim and I would be talking when he was in the Chair and I was on the floor about what it was he wanted to accomplish and get done, and what it was we were going to do.

So Sebelius was, I really enjoyed working with her. On the Republican side, you had Shallenburger and you had Robin Jennison and Tom Sawyer who became Leader after Barkis. Tom and I and Bill Reardon were friends. So you would have people out here on the House who were losing their mind, so mad they couldn’t talk, and the seven of us would end up back in—Gary Hayzlett was the other—the seven of us would end up back in the Speaker’s Office just laughing about what had happened that day.

And it’s not a mocking laugh or in any way negative. But it’s just the movement through the day. You’d say, “Man, Tim, you stuck it to us today,” and everybody would kind of laugh. One of them, and this was an earlier one, one time Denny Apt came to the mic, and she said, “Every time Bill Reardon comes to the mic, so will I.” Well, everybody in the House just started booing her and booing him when Reardon came back up with an amendment again, we all started booing him to tell him to go back and sit down because nobody wanted Denny Apt to come back down and lecture us either. This was on a school finance debate.

People in the public might look at that and think we were being disrespectful or somehow that was inappropriate, but that was very much the feel of the House then, right? You were expressing yourself. You were trying to have fun. You were going through the day. I’m glad we didn’t have social media back then. I thought the legislature was actually better when it wasn’t televised because you were able to laugh about a few things.

And I think those things are important in any organization. You’ve got to have fun at work. And when you remove that fun from work, then what you have is what you see in Washington. Nobody knows each other. It is easy to be critical of each other, and it’s easy to call someone a name and be hateful if you then don’t go and sit down and talk to them later on or go have dinner with them.

What I tried to do the whole time I was here was have at least a speaking relationship with everyone in the House. Everyone in the House I would say hi to. I had some colleagues that didn’t do that, and that was I think one of the reasons I was able to get some things done.

CC: You mentioned the ascendancy of the conservatives in the nineties and Speaker Shallenburger who became Speaker in ’95. And some of that starts with the 1994 election which was a wipe-out pretty much up and down the ballot for your party. Governor Finney had decided not to run again, and Kansas Secretary of State Bill Graves, a Republican, was elected after defeating Democratic Congressman Jim Slattery in the gubernatorial race. Graves was a moderate Republican, as you noted, but a great many Republicans elected to the House in that year in particular turned out to be more conservative than their new governor.

So starting in ’95, all of this set-up – and you’ve alluded to this earlier – this interesting new dynamic for the balance of your legislative career, where there were some strong internal disagreements within the increasingly dominant Republican legislative majority – with Democrats on occasion being able to work more closely with Graves and at least some of the people in the GOP. Is that—

EM: Yes. I think Tom Sawyer and I worked well together, helping do that. I enjoyed sitting down and talking to Tony Powell and Phill Kline as much as I enjoyed hanging out with David Adkins. So there’s the two ends. Carlos Mayans and Brenda Landwehr, they sat on either side of David. So when the Republicans were fighting, I would often come over here and talk to David in front of Carlos and Brenda and see if I could get the three of them in a fight.

It was a lot of fun. There was always a way to pivot, but there were good things that happened from that. So if you look at the tobacco money, we worked with conservatives to put that together in a way that the moderates didn’t really want to and the Governor didn’t really want to, but it was good public policy, and what happened was, we forced—I would say that we forced that conversation, and it was a good conversation. It was one that served the state well.

It was unfortunate that later on, some of that settlement money was spent. It originally was wanted to be for a trust fund. I think that was a short-term mistake that a future legislature made that we worked very hard to accomplish.

CC: Also, during this era in the later nineties, your influence and seniority within the caucus continued to grow, and you ended up serving on the highly coveted House Appropriations panel during your last two terms. Can you tell us what you recall about this period especially as it relates to some of these relationships between people? You mentioned the Governor, Democrats, Republicans – what sorts of spending issues in particular were front and center beyond the tobacco settlement when you were on Appropriations?

EM: So,  I’d been in the legislature for six years, and I’d worked in the Governor’s Office, and I remember my very first committee hearing, I went and found Alan Conroy. I said, “What am I getting ready to do here? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” And he kind of looks at me like, “You’re a natural at this. What are you even wondering about?” “I’d never gone through a budget before. What should we do?”

So,  I ended up on a budget subcommittee with Joe Kejr and Shari Weber. We covered the political spectrum. We had basically all of the law enforcement-type issues. So we had highway patrol, KBI, fire marshal, corrections, juvenile justice, and whatever the three of us agreed to get passed by the House because it was a compromise. What I learned from that one, all I had to do was either get Joe or Shari to vote with me, and then it would go to committee, and the committee would adopt it, and then it would become law.

And there was a tremendous amount of respect between the three of us. We spent a lot of time together. We talked through everything. We did a lot of heavy lifting together. I believe we kind of connected on the back side of the moon where the left and the right meet. And we both wanted the right things for the right reasons. So we ended up spending more money on juvenile justice, but we both wanted fewer people in prisons.

And maybe our goal was different. Joe’s primary thought that got his attention was how much money we were spending on prisons in the state, how ridiculous it was that every year we were always building more prisons, and people would come out of prison and then just go right back in. So where’s the success in this? And I’m out there looking at kind of the same thing.

So the three of us, it was all about the relationship. It was all about talking together. When you were in Appropriations back then, you’d start at 7:30 in the morning or 7:00 in the morning, and you would work all day long. So that was my favorite two years because that was the last of the three-person subcommittees.

And that was the last of when if a single legislator—I think we have better public policy today by having the Appropriations subcommittees. They have other members on there. But those other members kind of got in the way, too, if you knew what you wanted to do. When there’s just three of you, it’s a lot more fun. But it’s better public policy having it broader and deeper and having more members in the House buying into the Appropriations process versus the twenty-one cardinals who just decided everything on their own. So it’s a stronger, better process. But it was a lot of fun just to be—one of three puts you in a very different position than being one of seven.

CC: I can imagine. I suppose we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about taxes. The state and national economies for much of the mid through late nineties were doing quite well, and tax collections were strong. Tax relief was a priority for policymakers, especially for many of the conservative Republicans. Kansas lawmakers during these years enacted a major car tax cut plan in 1995; several reductions in the statewide mill levy for schools; and a broad smorgasbord of tax cuts in 1998. I know you weren’t a member of the Tax panel, but do you have any stories or recollections about the tax cut battles of the late 1990s?

EM: Yes. The reason I’m laughing is because Jim Garner, Rocky Nichols, and I wanted to do car tax cuts, and Joan Wagnon did not want to do car tax cuts. And we had a caucus upstairs, and Joan knew where she was going. She was driving the herd, and she was not going to let three young kids get in her way of getting this done.

So we kept raising our hands saying, “We want to talk about car taxes. We want to talk about car taxes.” She said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to write ‘car taxes’ on your own sheet of paper.” She got a flip chart, flipped it over, and she wrote “reduced car taxes” on there. We were all happy we got on the list. Then she flipped the chart back over, and we never got back to car taxes again. We left. We were so mad because she wrote it down just to get us to shut up and then had no intention of going back.

I actually carried an amendment. We had a Constitutional amendment, and I carried an amendment that would have cut car taxes in half, and we had it on a division, but we didn’t ask for a roll call, and it was 62-62, with one person not voting. Or actually it was more like 62-60 with some people not in the House chamber. All of a sudden, everybody realized, “Oh, my gosh. Car taxes really are an issue,” and so it shifted, and so we did make that adjust to it. Joan may not quite remember it that way, but that’s certainly the way I remember it.

I think the other one, the big memory was time is the constant in the legislature. So there will come a day in May that the legislature is going to adjourn. That will happen whenever the budget’s passed. And when the budget passes, you’ve only got about six hours at most before we’re out of here and going home. So I learned from a very early age from when I was working here as a staffer was the most important thing in the legislature next to the relationship was time. When you’re out of time, they go home.

So there would be times when I would do things out of a sense of urgency for time that would make people upset. So we in that Democratic group, you had a lot of people who did not want to work with the conservatives. They believed that working with Bill Graves—Graves and I got along. His wife didn’t like me because a couple of times in the newspaper in that campaign against Jim Slattery, I made a kind of a sarcastic comment saying the Secretary of State is just kind of like a glorified county clerk.

Now Bill Graves thought that was funny. His wife Linda did not think that was funny. She did not think I was being respectful. Graves kind of laughed and thought it was a pretty good line. And actually, he and I had a great relationship all the way to the very end. Actually my last day in the legislature, he and Doug Spangler and I went to Bobo’s for lunch. I’ve got a picture hanging in my office today of Bill Graves handing me a $10 bill. He said, “I want everybody in the state to know you’ve taken the last $10 I have out of me on your way out of town.”

But we passed the homestead exemption. So that went through. And a lot of House Democrats were furious because seven of us sided with the conservatives to pass that. We really made people mad. But they were focused on the ideology of who we were voting with versus focused on the tax policy. That happened on a Friday, and there were a lot of people on Monday that had thought about it over the weekend and got madder at us.

And actually there was more of a conspiracy theory about it than actually existed. There were seven of us that kind of independently voted for it. Some people had overheard me talking on my phone, thinking I was talking to Democrats. I was actually talking to Tim. We were on emergency final action on that one. We were the speakers and the Chair and Tim and I were talking through it, but I wasn’t talking to anybody else. Spangler was the one out doing the whipping and working on the floor. Some people just voted for it.

That’s still in law today. It was expanded. I think it’s going to be expanded again.

CC: Yes.

EM: So something everybody got furious about, and I mean I had to have a thick skin because there were people who were mad at me about that for over ten years. And then finally people took a deep breath and realized that it was the policy that was there and the mistake was that they were focused on who they were voting with.

CC: Some of the more—

EM: As mad as everybody got at me, if I had the chance to do it over again, I’d have done it exactly the same way because it was the right thing to do. What I have found is that when you do things for the right reason, when you do things because you know in your heart that it’s right and you’re voting for your district, that people will give you leeway for that, and I think that was an important one. That was an important win for those people who were starting out in life and trying to be homeowners.

CC: As you indicated, I think history has vindicated you. This is the residential homestead exemption from the mandatory school finance levy, which has proven to be quite popular. It was expanded here a couple of years ago, and now people in both parties are talking about expanding it yet again this year.

Some of the more fascinating back stories always seem to involve battles over reapportionment. Anything about map-drawing controversies that you recall or would like to share?

EM: Jim Garner and I did the first map for Southeast Kansas. We were in the majority and Rochelle Chronister was our worthy opponent. Rochelle came in and gave her map and walked through it. Of course, we wanted nothing to do with that map. But what we realized was is Rochelle had run forty-two circles around us, and we had no idea what we were doing.

So Jim and I had planned to go eat that night, and instead we were here until about 3:00 in the morning. And we went through every precinct—this was before we had the big computer. We were still doing a lot by hand. We had gotten our own version of the map, and we had written the populations of every precinct in Southeast Kansas out, and by the time we came back to the Capitol the next morning, we still probably didn’t know as much as Rochelle. I’m not sure you can ever know as much as she did. But we were on par with her, and we went toe to toe for the rest of the time on that.

That was a really important and critical meeting for me was to how much more you can be prepared in a meeting and how important that was. I appreciated Rochelle handing us our shorts on that one because I made sure that never happened again, but it sure happened that night, and it was a little awkward.

And then the other one of course is when we went down to Governor Finney’s office and came back upstairs and were emissaries to Marvin who was having a headache because he was trying to lose weight and eating apples. We had just kind of went in and said, “Hey, the Governor has asked us to come up and tell you”—whatever, whatever the message was. And it wasn’t too well received. We had to kind of take a deep breath and work through that.

You know, people are tired by that time of the year. When you get to the end of a legislative session, people are tired. Feelings get bruised. People get hurt, and you just kind of have to take a deep breath and work through it. So there were times where along the way, I could have done a little bit better on the delivery of things, but in the end, there were good memories, and we had good public policy that came out of it.

CC: You opted not to run for re-election in 2000. Is there any kind of backstory there? Had you decided it was time to move on? This was around the time you went to work at Watco.

EM: Yes. So I didn’t have a job. In the ’98 election, I’m out knocking on doors, and I went out before the time change. I went out knocking in October. I knocked on about fifteen people and about ten people were home, and five people talked to me about how I should be more pro-life. Another five talked to me about how I should be more pro-choice. Whatever my position was wrong.

I went home. I was married at the time. I came home, and I said, “I don’t think I’m running for re-election again. This is not where I want to be.” I won that. I got elected that race, but still I saw where the conversation was going, which was not where I wanted to be and it was not where I wanted to go be beaten up on because you can talk about tax policy. You can talk about transportation. You can find common ground on those, but when a person has an issue that is so core to who they are, there’s not a compromise on that. I wouldn’t expect a person to compromise, but yet this is a place of compromise.

So that was when I decided. I had the most fun because the only two people in the world who knew I wasn’t running for re-election when I came through the door in ’99 was my wife and I. So I had a very freeing two years. People would say, “Man, you’re having fun this session.” I’m like, “Yes, I am.”

CC: It was liberating.

EM: It was a liberating two years where we had—I was able to do everything I wanted to get done and just enjoy myself.

CC: Okay. We’re soon going to get into your days with the Bioscience Authority and Board of Regents, but Kansas Oral History Project officials are in the process of pulling together a special subproject on Rivers, Roads, and Railroads, and I’ve been asked at this point to give you a chance to tell us a little bit about Watco and short-line railroads and everything you were involved with working there.

EM: So all of those former relationships came in place. I went to work for Watco. They were a growing company, and one of the things they had figured out was that government is an essential part of the railroad industry. Railroads have a special place in federal law. You’re navigating space that’s very important.

So I go to work for Watco. I had begun doing some stuff in business development. I started to wander around, trying to figure out where customers were, relearning the railroad business. I went to a meeting in Western Kansas, and at that time, one of the railroads out there was called the Central Kansas Railroad, and the people who owned it were going to scrap it and pick up the rail and sell it, and make a whole bunch of money off it.

The state did not want that to happen. It would end up having to put about 200,000 trucks, about 2,000,000 truck miles on the road. KDOT was not excited about having a bunch of overweight, heavy grain trucks moving through Central Kansas tearing up roads. They were freaking out on the thing.

So I worked with the Department of Transportation to preserve that railroad, which ran from Wichita out to Tanner, Colorado, and through the central part of the state. It was an essential part. What short-line railroads do, they’re the first mile, last mile of the rail network. So as a continental nation, half of all the freight in the United States moves by rail. At some point, almost everything you touch, especially when you get around the energy, and especially when coal was being used for power supply, railroads are just an essential part of it. Short lines are what American Eagle is to American Airlines. So when you go out and there in rural or more sparsely populated areas, you have short-line railroads that go out there and serve the middle and the lower-cost model than the Class 1s do.

So we’re very fortunate. We’ve got six Class 1 railroads that are the envy of the world. They move freight across the country in record time. Then they hand those off to short-line railroads like we have here in Kansas. So we built a rail network that goes all the way from Tanner, Colorado back through Southeast Kansas and then down through Tulsa and back in southwest Oklahoma all connected. So we ended up moving a lot of the—prehistoric Oklahoma has the iron ore from Arkansas washed into it. That’s why the dirt is red in Oklahoma. You can’t make concrete out of sand that has rust in it because that then rusts the rebar.

So we would haul clean sand and clean rock out of Kansas down to Oklahoma, which is why you have better infrastructure in Oklahoma today than you did before because we’re hauling in clean aggregate versus dirt aggregate with rust in it, of which I knew none of that until I started working for a railroad. I’m just kind of wandering around saying, “What do you move here? How does this work?” I literally was like being a legislator again. I had no idea what I was doing except I knew how to ask questions, and I would ask and I would ask and I would ask them, and I finally figured out something to move by rail, and that’s what we did.

CC: Interesting. Getting back into your public service, you served on the Kansas Bioscience Authority from 2007 to 2010.  You were appointed by venerable Senator Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, but I’m guessing you must have had some discussions with Governor Sebelius and others prior to agreeing to do this.

EM: I did. With the KBA, the word that comes to mind is alignment. So Kansans by and large don’t like government, but we have more government per capita than any other state in the country. We have layers and layers and layers of government. So when you want to do something well, what you have to do is seek alignment. When you get the Governor, the legislature, and the universities and local communities all on the same line, all on the same place, you have tremendous success.

One of the most important votes I made and several people, the majority made, was when we took the University of Kansas Hospital out of the Board of Regents and created its own Hospital Authority. Subsequently, when we did the cancer effort, which was what the KBA worked on and also in NBAF [National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility] and also NIAR [National Institute for Aviation Research] down in Wichita at Wichita State, those were three places where the KBA invited significant alignment with legislature and with the Regents, and the Governor all in the same place.

Most importantly, we had the Congressional delegation in line. One of the things we don’t do very well as a state is clearly articulate our needs to our Congressional delegation and for them to go be on our behalf. Part of that I would say is we got out of the habit of doing that when Bob Dole was Majority Leader and Minority Leader because you didn’t need to talk to anyone in Congress. You just needed to talk to Dole’s staff. Literally with the wave of a hand, he could put things in a bill. You didn’t have to go make a case and go build this. All you had to do was convince Bob to do something.

We haven’t had a guy like that in a while. We certainly have with Senator [Jerry] Moran. He is nearing that level of effectiveness, but getting that alignment was very, very important, and that’s where we were successful.

So I was put on the KBA. Senator Hensley appointed me. I think this goes back to my days on Legislative Post Audit and Rules and was basically told that the KBA was probably operating a little bit looser than they wanted to be, and that they asked me to go in and make sure that we were holding people accountable, and I got elected to be Treasurer.

During the meltdown in 2010 [we] had 30 million dollars of state money deposited in Credit Suisse and were very concerned—this was when banks were closing. I was absolutely horrified that Credit Suisse would go upside down, and I was Treasurer of KBA, and all of a sudden, 30 million dollars would be gone. I was very certain my mother would not be happy if she saw that, and neither would anybody else.

There was a good experience, and I really learned about the importance of alignment and still talk about that today. Where we are more in alignment, the more effective we are as a state. We should be seeking that more and more. But Kathleen [Sebelius] told me to go in there and get the place cleaned up. I had her private number. I was supposed to call her whenever there was a problem. We shifted a few things around. I’d give her a few phone calls. I asked her a couple of times if she wanted me to take care of it. She said, “No, no, I’ve got this one.” She would call and fix things.

She was a very effective Governor. She was a great communicator. She liked to learn. She liked to be effective. She would call and give very specific directions about what she wanted. If I thought they were reasonable, I certainly wanted to work with her to do that.

CC: Okay, but notwithstanding some of these controversies that you mentioned that were starting on the Bioscience board when you were there, you seemed to indicate you think its role was critical in getting the cancer designation at KU.

EM: It was absolutely critical. The University of Kansas Hospital was the place you used to go to die. It was not a very good hospital. It is today the best hospital between Chicago and Dallas. It’s because the KBA and Roy Jensen and others, the entire crew over at the University of Kansas Hospital and the Medical Center are doing a terrific job. The KBA was able to make some specific investments early on and do things that more than likely the legislature would not have done because these were strategic business investments and the legislature doesn’t do those well.

Now what I would say is the KBA did not effectively recognize Wichita State. This was very much seen as a KU/K-State sandbox. It should not have been, and instead of killing the KBA, where what we should have done is get some realignment. If what you see now is Wichita State will soon, if not today, they will be the state’s largest research institution by far. And if you cut the medical center out from KU, Wichita State is already the largest research university in the state. And you look at what they do with aviation, with NASA, and the Air Force, that was a mistake that had been made earlier on. By the time the KBA was there, it was probably too late to fix it. So you can certainly see what happened, but had Governor Brownback slowed a little bit and forced a conversation on that space, I think the KBA would still be here, and I think Kansas would be a better state, and it would be a stronger state if that would have happened.

CC: So around 2012, you’re no longer on the board, but as you indicated, the—

EM: I’m still on the KBA board, but I had met this guy by the name of Mark Parkinson back when I was—he got elected to the legislature at the same time I did. I make a crack one day in local government. We were arguing about some minuscule, minor election bill. I mean, we were fighting like we were writing the 14th Amendment. And we were just duking it out, and I make some crack like, “Well, I’m not an attorney, but here’s my thoughts on this,” and then Parkinson comes right back. He says, “I am an attorney, and I’m glad you’re not.” Of course, the whole room burst out laughing. He and I go out in the hall and just start laughing about the whole thing.

But that exchange started a relationship, right? We both demonstrated to each other that we had a respect for each other’s ideas and exchanges, and then it goes all the way. So there was all of a sudden an opening on the Board of Regents. I’m still on the KBA. I call him and I say, “Hey, can I come up and see you?” Sebelius had gone to DC to become HHS Secretary, and he said “yeah.”

I came up and I said, “How are you on the Board of Regents?” He said, “Would you be interested in doing it?” I said, “Yes, I’d love to be on the Board of Regents.” My family was an education family, and I had a lot of friends in Pittsburg. I was the first Regent confirmed from Southeast Kansas in the history of the state, or from Pittsburg in the history of the state.

It was a great run. I really enjoyed being on there. That relationship with Mark, with Governor Parkinson allowed me to be on there. I had that relationship, and he had the confidence in me that I would go on there. When I first got on there, Jill Docking—see how round the world is, remember my first job was working for the Docking campaign. So Jill was Chair of the Board when I first get in. I get under her arm right from the beginning. I’m an extended family member to the Docking clan. It was really good. I really enjoyed being able to be appointed to the Board and to have that transition from the KBA.

Also it gave me insight into things that needed to be changed in the Board of Regents. I had looked at what a couple of our universities were doing. I’m like, “Okay, there’s some things here that need to be fixed.”

CC: As you indicated, Governor Parkinson appointed you to the Board of Regents in 2010, and significantly you chaired that Board for a year from 2011 to 2012 during an especially interesting time. You and I are both big college sports fans, and in fact, have stayed in touch over the years because we’ve both had a son play football at Emporia State, yours in fact still does. But I also noticed that your tenure as Chair of the Board of Regents coincided with the first big round of major conference realignment.

This was an era where Nebraska and Colorado had left the Big XII, followed by Texas A&M and Missouri. TCU and West Virginia were coming in to sort of backfill, but the big crisis in the fall of 2011 was that Oklahoma and Texas were talking about leaving. Of course, the prospect at that time of losing Oklahoma and Texas would have meant almost a certain break-up and disaster for the remaining Big XII schools. So everyone was up in arms and worried about KU and K-State and what the future held.

I was really intrigued with an interview you gave to the Topeka Capital-Journal as Chair in the middle of all of this, in the fall of 2011, about how you had worked more on this potential conference realignment issue and its potential fallout for the proceeding months than you had anything else. You made at that time, some thirteen years ago now, what I thought turned out to be some very prescient remarks about how even if Oklahoma and Texas were to ultimately leave, you were confident the conference was going to be okay and would be able to find some additional BCS-level newcomers to come in and stabilize everything and keep the Big XII alive as one of the power conferences.

Now it turns out more than a decade later, that is pretty much exactly what has happened, even as we are finally waving goodbye to the Sooners and Longhorns. So I guess, Mr. Chairman, this is your chance to take a victory lap regarding your comments from 2011. Tell us what you were dealing with internally at the Board of Regents during this time.

EM: I’m smiling and laughing. It was just such a tumultuous time. So round one starts a month after I’m on the Board of Regents. I called Jill Docking up. This was when Colorado left and Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was mad. Tom Osborne was mad that OU/Nebraska wasn’t on every TV set on Thanksgiving, and he was never forgiving OU for doing that. So Nebraska was gone. There was no way to fix that.

So I call up Jill Docking, and she’s the Chair, and I’m this brand new person who’s never been on the Board of Regents. I’ve been to a whopping one meeting, and I said, “Hey, this is going to be a big deal because all of a sudden, sports”—she said, “Now, Eddie, we don’t talk about it.” That’s the athletic corporations, and the Board doesn’t get involved with it.”

I said, “Well, Jill, I think it’s going to be a little bit bigger than that. I don’t think we’re going to have any choice because if this all falls apart, this is going to end up on our plate.” And I would say that some of that conversation that happened from just being in a legislative experience of knowing that when everything breaks, somewhere it’s going to land.

So I get to the next meeting and Christine Downey shows up. Christine would not be—she might have enjoyed sports, but she’s not—would clearly not be, she would freely admit that that’s not really her bailiwick. That’s not why she’s on the Board of Regents. She says, “Hey, we’ve got to do something about this KU and K-State thing and the Big XII falling apart.   Gordon and I were at dinner this week in Wichita, and we had fifteen people come over at our table. We couldn’t even finish dinner.” So all of a sudden, Jill looks at me and she goes, “Oh, this is a big deal.” I said, “This is a huge deal.”

And it was okay. So Colorado leaves. Nebraska leaves. Now Colorado is coming back. We’ll have another place for the Wildcats and Jayhawks to go beat up on Colorado in basketball.

But the second round comes. I’m on a plane flying from Chicago up to Wisconsin for a railroad. I land, and Andy Tompkins who was then President of the Board of Regents calls me. The guy who worked for me then who picked me up there, he remembers that three days that I was up there because I certainly wasn’t doing railroad stuff. We were in complete, full-blown meltdown.

But there were some important relationships there. Kansas was extraordinarily well-served, and some of these guys I’m going to talk about, history will demonstrate that they were great for Kansas. So John Currie over at Kansas State was the Athletic Director, was a tremendous advocate for Kansas State. Sheahon Zenger who was the AD over at KU did a great job at KU.  You had Bernadette Gray-Little and you had Kirk Schulz who were new into this, right?

But I had relationships. So I met Jon Wefald three months after he got hired back in ’87. So I had a relationship with Wefald that had gone back for fifteen years. He’s no longer president, but he is zeroed in on K-State. And I had a personal relationship with Gene Budig who had been Chancellor of the University of Kansas. I met Gene Budig—the guy was a two-star in the Air Force, and the guy could command a room, and he did. I very, very much had a tremendous amount of respect for both of those guys.

So I would spend time in the day talking to Currie and Zenger about what was actually happening and then would have back-channel conversations with both Budig and Wefald to try to get the lay of the land. The one thing that we could not allow to have happened without it being the absolute worst case scenario is KU going to one conference and K-State ending up in the Mountain West.

This is really [when] Bill Snyder is really starting to hit his stride and really turning K State football around, and K-State football is at this point really a power. And the idea of K-State ending up in the Mountain West and KU ending up in the Big Ten or the Pac 12 and having that happen on our watch. Again, there is that sense—I’ve always had a sense of history about certain things that I would get very nervous about and want to make sure I was putting extra effort into because having K-State end up out West and KU someplace else would not have been good.

We spent weeks working on that. Mizzou ended up kind of double-timing us on the whole thing. They were very much holding everybody accountable, and all of a sudden, nobody from Mizzou would return phone calls. Then we figured out, “Oh, it’s because they’re off cutting their own deal.”

The Boards had never really been into athletics. I ended up—I didn’t know how to find these guys, right? So the guy who chaired the OU Board of Regents was an orthodontist. So he would be fixing teeth all day, and he’d call me like at 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I talked to the Texas guys, and I talked to the guys at TCU. They were very, very effective. The TCU Board of Regents, they actually had a person, a Regent assigned to working on TCU athletics, which was really weird. They were literally in the office, which I thought was too much, but they spent a lot of time educating us and telling us about what was going on.

It was us and Iowa State that spent the most time talking with each other and being the ones that were the most firm. We also spent a lot of time working with Oklahoma State. So those four schools were all together.

CC: So I gather there was some consensus on the Board with this opinion that you had that KU and K-State should not end up in different conferences, or were opinions more split on this?

EM: We had some tough work to do in this space because as everyone probably knows, KU and K-State both have athletic corporations, and the position of the athletic corporations were that they could do whatever they wanted to do. I know the position of the Board was, “We don’t really want to get into this, but you don’t have the right to do whatever you want to do.” There is a difference between those two theories.

So we actually had to have a conversation where we went back through and walked the departments through the issue of “Yes, you’re corporations, but your shareholder is the Office of the President of Kansas State, and your shareholder is the Office of the Chancellor of the University of Kansas. Those are both entities under the Board of Regents, and so we’re telling you you’re not just going to cut and run, and we find out about it the next morning.”

In the end, I think had KU wanted to go to the Big 10, I think that might have happened, but our job, and I think the right thing to do was to hold everyone’s feet to the fire under the belief that our schools could be competitive. Where we’re at right now, Houston’s coming in, which is kind of funny. Back then, I mentioned, “Why don’t we just go get Houston and Louisville and bring them in?” and, of course, the eye roll from the two athletic corporations at the time, you could just hear that issue dying right in front of them. Of course, Houston is coming in now. If you look at the Big XII race, it’s KU and Houston. KU and Houston are at the top of this.

But the precedent we set and the decision we had to remind the universities of is you are the University of Kansas. You’re not the University in Lawrence. You’re not the University of Northeast Kansas. And at Kansas State, you’re Kansas State University. You’re not the University of Manhattan. You belong to the people of Kansas.

That was an important precedent, not just to set at the athletic corporation levels, but there are also other subdivisions of the university, what we call the affiliates, that, yeah, you may be an affiliate and you may have a separate corporation. You may be out there in charge of specific things, but in the end, you are owned by the people of Kansas.

That was a very important precedent we set, and future boards have held everyone accountable to that. That was important. I would say there are some people who knew that, but that certainly had to be reaffirmed at that time. It was not overly well-received, but the Board was unanimous in its position of that’s where we were. I would say Kirk Schulz and Bernadette Gray-Little completely embraced that, understood. They knew that was the right thing to do.

And there’s nothing worse than college athletics. There is no one—you aren’t Bill Snyder’s boss. You’re not Bill Self’s boss. You’re lucky to have two great men in those positions, but at best, you are coworkers with them. And you are driving two organizations that have an incredible following. Frank Martin, who was one of the more polite university coaches to me as a Regent of anyone I’ve ever met, when Frank Martin left, there were people madder than heck. We got a lot of K-State people in Southeast Kansas, and they were madder than heck that somehow or other, we let Frank Martin go. Subsequently, they got over it.

But a successful university coach is an extraordinarily powerful force to deal with, and it’s not something you can deal with in a reasonable way because [for] their fans—no matter what, the coach is right, even when they’re not right.

CC: The argument is, athletics can be the front porch to a university and attract and retain students, which is one of the missions. Given that you were on the Board until 2014, what sort of pressure did the Regents feel about higher-ed funding issues and accelerating tuition given what was happening with the state’s overall fiscal situation in the wake of the so-called tax experiment that was going on in that era?

EM: I had been the holdout legislator amongst the Regent Universities when we decoupled tuition from the legislature. For a long time, tuition was considered to take general fund dollars. The money was collected at the universities, and then it came to Topeka and then went back through the State General Fund.

We then went through budget assurance and tuition assurance. They had three or four names for it, but basically you took the cap off the tuition, the out-of-state tuition in particular, but what you saw was then a decoupling of the legislature’s responsibility with higher education funding.

So I remember being taken into the upstairs lounge, which is now an open stairwell. I can take it to you and show you. I had Don Wilson, Gene Budig, and Jon Wefald had me cornered in there and told me, “You’ve got to vote to decouple this because we need to go out and raise tuition.” We had cheaper out-of-state tuition in Kansas than in-state tuition was in Illinois. KU and K-State both needed revenue. They were becoming research universities. They were really going to fulfill their mission.

So we took the cap off. But I would say I think that is still an experiment underway because what it has done is the legislature is critical of tuition increases, but then don’t want to fund the annual increases for the institutions. So we now have to have universities become more creative, and quite frankly, we need to become more research-based in the state. We are leaving money on the table today. But you have to have some seed money.

So what you’re seeing is the massive expansion at Wichita State. How do they do this? They got connected with federal research dollars, really propelling them as an institution. Pitt State is now becoming a regional research institution. That’s the direction we’re going.

I still think we are forgetting that our primary job should be helping that kid change their life. I am one of those legislators. I have always been an advocate. I just want you to get a post-secondary certificate of whatever it is. So whether you want to be a welder or a lineman, whatever it is you want to do, I just want kids to be able to go and to be able to afford that and not be terribly in debt. I think what we’ve done is we’ve raised the cost of higher education to the point—and one of those things is you used to go to college and live a spartan life, a cheap life. You’d show up with a suitcase and that’s what you do.  You’d eat mac and cheese and hot dogs.

There’s a whole bunch of kids going to school right now that we’ve had to triple the amount of electricity in some of those residence halls because you walk in, and there are big-screen TVs. There’s everything there. So all those things cost money. There’s part of this in higher education who are asking—we’ve been asked to do more. We didn’t really change the base. And that’s been a tough pressure that we’re still trying to deal with today. I don’t know how that ends up looking. It will be interesting ten years from now to see how that works itself out.

CC: I’m sure. A couple more. You mentioned this earlier. In your era in the legislature, Southeast Kansas was a Democratic stronghold. But certainly it does not seem to vote that way anymore. Do you have any thoughts as to the reasons why the political direction seems to have shifted so much in recent decades in Southeast Kansas?

EM: Sure. Some of it, there’s no doubt, some of it’s abortion. Some of it’s gone from you’ve had coal miners down there that were union strong, and so that you would have a base of union people that were voting for you.

I do think at the federal level, the national politics of especially things like Mexico and NAFTA, things like that, whether you liked him or not, Trump redoing the NAFTA vote or the NAFTA treaty was extraordinary political brilliance. I don’t think anybody else would have said, “I’m willing to just trash this and go this alone,” which is why there’s this group of people out there that like him because he’s literally willing to just throw things in the wind and see where they land. There are a group of people who like that. There’s a lot of folks in Southeast Kansas who like that.

So I think also you look at the political mainstream of the Democratic party. They’re off on the two coasts. It’s harder for that identification. I think when you talk to Democrats in Kansas, I think they represent the middle. I think they’re there where public education is, what people still care about. But there’s been that shift that is hard to get people elected in.

We shouldn’t be applying litmus tests anywhere. Each party should welcome people how they feel comfortable, and I think both sides are—the No Labels movement is a result of who both sides criticize, but that is a result of having to pass an absolute litmus test on the left or an absolute litmus test on the right, and I was often in the middle on that. I can tell you, there were times we would talk about Democrats and we were always open and willing to hear people’s opinions. Well, we’re always willing to hear them until those ideas are different than ours, and then we’re not nearly as thrilled about them.

I think that’s been one of the big shifts down there. It’s unfortunate. I think communities are better served when you have competitive races, and you get better people, better candidates.

CC: Anything else you want to add about what the future holds for you? Will I see you at some Hornet football games this fall?

EM: Absolutely. I’ve got hopefully four years on the road. Jackson [McKechnie] is a Hornet now. So stingers up. I spend time driving back and forth between Pittsburg and Emporia. I do wish we had built a diagonal highway across the state now. It’s now a series of left and right turns to get from Pittsburg to Emporia.

I’m doing some work with Pitt State right now. We’ve done some work in reading. I hope later on in this session, we’ll see some work from that. We have too many kids that graduate from high school that can’t read. It’s fueling those people who don’t support public education. So we should fix the challenges of reading because it’s the right thing to do. We also need to be aware that the public is restless in this space right now, and the public wants action.

By and large, I have learned through my life the legislature and Congress only do two things really well, which is nothing and then overreact. And by and large, what you can do is take a step at a time instead of overreacting, the public is better served.

CC: Thank you so much for your time today.

EM: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

[End of File]

Interviewee Date of Birth

July 31, 1963

Interviewee Political Party

Democrat

Interviewee Positions


Member, House Pensions and Investments 1991-1992
Member, House Elections and Ethics 1991-1992
Member, House Energy and Natural Resources 1991-1992
Member, Joint committee Legislative Post Audit 1991-2000
Chair, Joint Committee on Special Claims Against the State 1991-1992
Vice-Chair, House Computers, Communication, and Technology 1991-1992
Member, House Local Government 1993-1994
Member, House Interstate Cooperation 1993-1994
Member, House Governmental Organization 1993-1994
Member, House Education 1993-1994
Member, Joint Committee on State Building Construction 1995-1996
Ranking Minority Member, Select Committee on Development Disabilities 1995-1996
Member, Select Committee Higher Education 1997-1998
Vice-Chair, Select Comm. Corrections and Juvenile Justice 1997-2000
Vice-Chair, House Rules and Journal 1997-2000
Member, House Appropriations 1997-2000
Member, Public Safety Budget Committee 1999-2000
Member, SRS Transition Oversight 1999-2000

House District Numbers

3

Interview Location

Statehouse, Topeka, KS

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