By BRAD COOPER
and BRENT WISTROM
The Wichita Eagle
TOPEKA (MCT) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is easy to underestimate.
Gov. Chris Christie trumps him with guest spots on "Saturday Night Live" and with reliable bombast, but Brownback is every bit the hard-liner on spending as the New Jersey boss.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall after a collision with public employee unions, yet Brownback's no more afraid to stare down labor.
Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels might be "Mr. Privatize" to some. Still, Brownback is just as ready to farm out governmental tasks to business.
Brownback has rammed through massive income tax cuts, wiped away thousands of public sector jobs and cut spending for public broadcasting and social services.
He squeezed four state agencies into other departments. He handed the state's Medicaid program, which provides health care to some low-income residents, off to private insurance companies. He's taken thousands off welfare by rewriting the rules that once made them eligible for help.
Now, backed with a growing legislative majority of conservative Republicans, Brownback stands ready to amp up his remake of state government in Kansas.
His unapologetically bold agenda, backed with mounting political power, makes Kansas a proving ground for a range of conservative theory. If it works — kick-starting prosperity in Kansas — the governor becomes a national rival to Christie and the rest. If it bombs, then Brownback's political career could dead-end in Topeka.
Success for his policies could mean a leaner, more efficient state government nurturing an economic boom in Kansas. Should his policies bust, Kansas busts with them. Every Kansan, in ways large and small, will feel the results.
"He is ambitious," said outgoing Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "He does have a vision for where he would like to take the state, and he's setting out to do it."
The Kansan with the soft-spoken charm and an aw-shucks demeanor has methodically built a rÃ©sumÃ© that could energize any presidential prospects he might cultivate for 2016 or beyond even as, critics insist, he puts the state at risk.
In recent months, Brownback has traveled the country touting the power of small government, low taxes and his efforts leading the state out of a budget hole into a surplus.
A Catholic with a deep faith who is known to occasionally pray with people in the Capitol, Brownback also takes to the road boasting of laws he's signed making Kansas one of the toughest places in the country to get an abortion.
Brownback shrugs off questions about his presidential ambitions, joking that he hasn't even talked to his wife about running again for governor.
"I am fully occupied," he said in an interview for this story. "I am staring at what we're doing here now."
If anything, Brownback is racing to reverse years of population decline and economic doldrums. He thinks reducing government spending and cutting taxes will foster growth.
"We're all trying to grow jobs and create opportunities in our states," Brownback said. "If you don't get it done here, it's going to happen somewhere else."
Critics say the Brownback agenda revolutionizes the state in his ideological image — a place sometimes sarcastically referred to as "Brownbackistan."
"We are victims of an experiment that will go awry," said former longtime Republican state Sen. Dick Bond of Overland Park.
"He believes that his policies are going to change the face of Kansas," Bond said. "He wants it to be a shining star that he can use as an example of his administrative leadership and prowess."
While Brownback occasionally mixes the word "experiment" into talk about issues such as tax cuts, he resents any suggestion he's tinkering with untested ideas.
He said a number of his policies — tax cuts, pension reform and managed care for Medicaid — have been employed in other states.
After a failed bid for the presidency in 2008, Brownback makes the cut on few short lists of serious hopefuls for 2016. So many other names — Christie, Walker and Daniels among them — emerge first.
Yet one leading conservative, editor Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, won't count out Brownback. Particularly if he can claim a Kansas miracle.
"His success may be such that he will get more and more attention," Kristol said in an interview. "A re-elected Sam Brownback in early 2015 is a formidable presidential possibility."
Others see a Brownback candidacy hamstrung by questions about whether his policies can travel outside a deeply red state.
"I am not sure how a very conservative governor from a small Midwestern state is going to appeal to the increasingly diverse electorate that makes up America," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Brownback — a former U.S. senator and congressman — often seems to take a Washington approach to state issues by shifting power to the executive branch.
He reorganized state agencies and policies to give his office growing control. For instance, he eliminated the parole board and required all human resource managers to report to the Department of Administration. Brownback also has tried to gain more control of judicial appointments — much the way things work in D.C.
Few governors in Kansas history reshuffled state government so dramatically. In two years, Brownback issued nine executive reorganization orders, more than any other governor since Republican Gov. Robert F. Bennett in 1976.
Key allies in the Legislature say Brownback's fearless approach to governing is sorely needed in the White House. They believe he's just the fix Washington needs. Cutting income taxes and eliminating frivolous spending might be what cures an ailing federal government.
"I wish that our leaders on the federal level would use the same approachwe're clearly in an economic crisis," said incoming Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. "Wouldn't it be nice to have a leader like our governor working on this in Washington?"
Gliding into office with 63 percent of the vote, Brownback was one of 16 new Republican governors elected in 2010 at the height of the tea party's popularity amid the recession.
Immediately, Brownback faced a financial crisis as he grappled with increasing demands for Medicaid services, prisons and pensions while losing millions in federal stimulus money that had helped the state to limp through the recession.
From the outset, Brownback made clear that government wouldn't lead the state into financial prosperity. Rather, like Ronald Reagan a generation before, he saw government as the problem.
"The days of ever-expanding government are over," Brownback said. "Under my administration, they will not return."
Within six months of moving into the governor's mansion, Brownback cut about 2,000 state jobs, many of which were already vacant.
Brownback's voluntary buyouts, taken by more than 1,000 state workers, caused worry about the effect on state services even though some of those positions were replaced.
For example, the state now has 63 fewer heavy equipment operators than a year ago to plow snow. Some 230 engineering technicians can fill in for localized storms. But if a blizzard blankets the whole state, crews would be about 70 people short of keeping all their trucks on the road around the clock.
In the end, Brownback shrunk state government. He dipped into various state coffers to replace disappearing federal stimulus dollars, but not enough to offset the loss.
"People need to marinate in these things for a while before they start sounding the alarm," said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
Moderate Republicans and Democrats argue that the governor's early budgets haven't done enough to restore cuts in state programs made at the depth of the recession.
"(Brownback) walked into office sort of thinking there's all this waste and inefficiency in government," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. "But I don't think he has really comprehended what we did over the two years before he came into office."
Brownback said he simply doesn't like dumping more money into general government programs. He prefers targeted spending, such as committing money to increase the number of fourth-grade students who can read at grade level. He also has won approval of financial incentives to encourage people to move to withering areas of the state and persuaded the Legislature to earmark money for specific research areas at Wichita State University, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas Medical Center.
"That's the way we should try to encourage the system to produce the results," he said of his targeted approach.
The Kansas example
Two years after being sworn into office, Brownback now works a national circuit talking up a great Kansas turnaround. In appearances in New York, Chicago and Denver, he's promoted the recovery, telling audiences how Kansas went from a $500 million deficit to a $500 million surplus without raising taxes.
He plays down the school cuts, noting that he has put more money into areas that are not traditionally calculated as part of classroom spending such as teacher pensions, special education and debt payments on school construction projects.
In many ways, Brownback talks about his Kansas initiatives as an experiment, including the controversial income tax cut expected to cost the state $3.7 billion over five years and leave gaping holes in the budget.
"The way you change America is by changing the states," Brownback said last fall in Denver at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference. "These are the sorts of reforms that will bear fruit in our states and we'll be able to use federally as models for change."
He emphasized that point recently after the federal government agreed to let Kansas turn its $2.9 billion Medicaid program over to the private sector.
"This is a big deal," Brownback said. "Instead of cutting services, cutting providers, we're adding. This is the way forward. You're going to see a lot of states doing this."
Brownback refers to the tax cuts as a "real-live experiment."
"We're right next to some other states that haven't lowered taxes," Brownback said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show. "Kansas City is, I think, the largest urban area in the country that's shared between two states.You'll get a chance to see how this impacts a particular experimental area, and I think Kansas is going to do well."
The state, he said, has paid for its tax cuts partly by saving "nickels and dimes." Brownback said it's a matter of looking at the small things such as rent or janitorial service.
"You can say that's not going to add up to anything," he said. "It actually does."
Indeed, the state under Brownback's leadership did find small ways to curtail small expenses. The Legislature cut spending on cellphones, bottled water and information technology. Those cuts totaled more than $12 million out of a roughly $14 billion state budget.
Brownback tried to eliminate or curtail other programs. The Legislature stopped him.
The governor wanted to close the Kansas Neurological Institute and cut money for community mental health centers, early Head Start and a program that allowed seniors to be cared for at home instead of at institutions. They remained intact, sometimes because the administration found internal savings or because the Legislature added money to the budget.
Tougher times might lie ahead, especially if Brownback's income tax cuts leave massive holes in the budget and conservative lawmakers remain hungry to cut. Revenues are already projected to be down by about $700 million for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1.
Brownback had a plan that would have paid for the tax cuts by keeping part of a penny sales tax increase that is scheduled to lapse next summer and eliminating deductions for home mortgage interest payments, charitable contributions and other exemptions.
He got the tax cuts, but not the sales tax or the deductions. Now he's in a position of asking the Legislature after it reconvenes Jan. 14 to reconsider ways to cover any deficits that they could cause.
Legacy takes shape
In August, Brownback's budget director told state agencies to show how they would cut 10 percent of their budgets. Many saw those marching orders as the administration's early efforts to accommodate this year's tax cuts. The budget director said it was more about having a contingency plan.
Many agencies cautioned that the cuts would have real impact.
The state ethics commission warned it would have to lay off one of its two auditors, further limiting its ability to investigate dodgy campaign activity when lobbying and political spending only balloon. Secretary of Corrections Ray Roberts said cuts meant "real serious impacts on public safety."
Brownback has vowed to shield education, public safety and medical services for the poor. But he is still looking for ways to consolidate state government and cut costs without gutting services.
Others worry that Brownback's plan could leave Kansas government in financial tatters if it doesn't produce the growth he's counting on.
"The chickens are going to come home to roost," predicted Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. The governor "will have to reduce the workforce and cut the budget. That's the bottom line. Every decision on the budget will be driven in terms of how we can pay for this tax cut plan."
So what does this all mean for Brownback?
Many a respectable run for the White House launched from ostensibly successful time in a governor's mansion. For Brownback, that's probably still a long shot.
He can more reliably expect a place of note in Kansas history as a governor who left his mark.
O'Neal, the outgoing House speaker, said Brownback could position himself to run for president if he gets the state closer to eliminating income taxes and if that, in turn, produces jobs. Even if Brownback doesn't ultimately run for president, he will have left an imprint.
"If he doesn't have those ambitions or those ambitions don't pan out, what a legacy," O'Neal said. "I think the legacy he wants is to get government back into the footprint that it was intended to be in."
The Kansas City Star's Eric Adler contributed to this story.