Outgoing Gov. Sam Brownback struggled briefly to identify a personal capstone achievement after more than six years as the chief executive officer of Kansas government.
He expressed hope during a swan-song news conference at the Capitol that his constituents would eventually recognize, despite ranking him among the nation’s least popular governors, that he contributed to small business development, expansion of technical education opportunities, prison reform and water conservation. It would be nice, he said, to be mentioned by folks hiking on dozens of miles of new Flint Hills trails.
But, in the final analysis, Brownback said his greatest contribution as governor was fierce opposition to abortion.
“We’re a pro-life state and we’re not going back,” said Brownback, reflecting on adoption of 19 anti-abortion measures that meant “a bunch of kids born that would not have been born.”
“The inherent dignity of human life at any stage is the central issue of our day. That’s the one,” he said.
As with most analysis of the Brownback era, sharp division exists about the governor’s legacy in abortion politics.
“After he came to office, it was just an avalanche of anti-choice bills. What he calls his greatest, I’d call his worse,” said Julie Burkhart, who founded Trust Women and worked with George Tiller, the abortion physician murdered in 2009 during a Wichita church service.
Making sense of it
Brownback is prepared to resign as governor once confirmed by the U.S. Senate as ambassador of religious freedom in the administration of President Donald Trump.
He’ll turn state affairs over to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who lavished praise on the Republican governor for a lifetime of dedicated service.
“Sam Brownback has served our state and our citizens with distinction,” Colyer said. “I will be forever grateful.”
Brownback said he regretted not doing more to strengthen family structure in Kansas, but his influence was felt on policy and law tied to taxes, budgets, Medicaid, education, guns, water conservation, welfare, wind energy and abortion.
Burdette Loomis, who served briefly in the administration of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, said Brownback departs for Washington, D.C., with a whimper rather than a howl.
“Sam Brownback, by some reckoning the most popular electoral politician in Kansas history, has ended his political career by simply drifting away,” Loomis said. “Honestly, save for his veto pen, he has not proven a major force in Kansas politics and policymaking since his narrow re-election victory in 2014.”
To Republicans and Democrats, the decision by Brownback to sign a massive tax overhaul bill in 2012 set the stage for all that followed. Brownback originally sought tax cuts to partially cover the drop in income tax revenue, but the Legislature adopted a bill that simply sheltered 300,000 business owners from the income tax and trimmed individual income tax rates.
Brownback could veto a flawed bill and seek an alternative that wouldn’t bankrupt the state or, he could sign the bill on his desk and declare victory. He took the expedient path and sold reform as an inspired experiment guaranteed to deliver an “adrenaline shot” to Kansas economy.
The head rush from gambling on supply-side economics was fleeting.
Dave Trabert, who runs the conservative Kansas Policy Institute, said the Brownback tax revolution was damaged by years of failure to reduce state expenditures or raise other taxes enough to avoid a fiscal cliff.
“No one — the governor nor the Legislature, and that’s Democrats and Republicans — were willing to put significant spending controls in place to balance the budget or to put a tax increase in place to balance the budget,” Trabert said. “That was the real undoing of the tax relief effort in Kansas. You can’t cut taxes and increase spending.”
Brownback stuck with his vision until moderate Republicans and Democrats in the 2017 Legislature — over Brownback’s veto — passed a $1.2 billion, two-year plan raising income taxes, said Ed Flentje, who worked for Republican Gov. Mike Hayden.
“His fanatical drive to eliminate the state income tax produced unbalanced budgets, a depleted state treasury, unfair taxes, record debt, credit downgrades and lagging growth,” Flentje said.
Brownback’s privatized Medicaid program, KanCare, was plagued by federal criticisms and consumer complaints that advocates said demonstrated ineffectiveness of the program serving people with disabilities, the elderly, low-income adults and children.
Sean Gatewood, co-administrator for Kansas Advocates for Better Care, said the state’s managed care approach was not inherently a bad idea, but Brownback neglected to sufficiently oversee the work of three private insurance companies hired to run the program.
Colyer, a surgeon and one of KanCare’s architects, told a national group of lieutenant governors the initiative bent the cost curve while benefiting another 65,000 Kansans. Currently, the state is seeking federal reauthorization of KanCare.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, chair of the House health committee, said officials improved on some key KanCare problems, such as struggles some providers faced in getting paid.
Hawkins said Brownback made the right call when he vetoed expansion of Medicaid eligibility, including the state’s working poor adults. On the other end of the spectrum, David Jordan, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, called Brownback’s veto of expansion a stain on the governor’s record. Kansas turned aside $2 billion that could have been received under the Affordable Care Act.
“We had the opportunity to bring tax dollars back to the state to help benefit the state,” Jordan said.
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen called Brownback a “Second Amendment advocate” who “will be remembered for generations to come,” and noted the NRA gave Brownback an A+ during his 2014 re-election campaign. She said he signed nine pro-gun bills in his first term. In his second term, Brownback embraced repeal of the license and training requirement for gun owners to carry their weapon concealed.
Brownback’s gun-friendly policies have triggered controversy, and lawmakers worked during the 2017 Legislature to partially roll back a NRA-backed law requiring public buildings to allow for concealed weapons. Brownback let a bill become law without his signature to continue the prohibition on conceal-and-carry of firearms in public hospitals, mental health centers and nursing homes.
Some lawmakers wanted a broader roll back that would keep guns off college campuses, but Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, said lawmakers thought Brownback would veto such an exemption.
“I would say that he was definitely a force against safe environments,” she said.
Rep. Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican, said he was disappointed that Brownback, otherwise a champion of gun rights policy, had not vetoed the law keeping guns out of public hospitals.
In 2015, Brownback signed a bill establishing strict requirements for welfare eligibility. He reveled in setting shorter time limits for how long people could qualify for benefits and forcing able-bodied adults to work 20 hours a week or go through job training. The law blocked expenditure of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families at swimming pools, movie theaters, massage parlors and cruise ships.
The comprehensive bill was marketed as a path to self-sufficiency for people addicted to handouts and an incentive for people to lift themselves out of poverty and into the workforce. Many Democrats and activists perceived the HOPE Act as cruel and anti-family.
Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said programs that promoted government dependency were a “disservice to the individual, a disservice to our culture and certainly a disservice to the taxpayer.”
Last year, Brownback further reduced lifetime limits on cash assistance from 36 months to 24 months. Able-bodied recipients were made to work at least 30 hours a week, up from 20 hours, or take part in employment training.
“Unfortunately, over the course of the last four to six years, we’ve seen incredible damage done to the state’s safety net,” said Annie McKay, executive director of Kansas Action for Children.
As Brownback prepares for his new job, his administration is still plagued by an ongoing lawsuit over K-12 funding filed before he took office. The Kansas Supreme Court has yet to rule on constitutionality of a plan approved by lawmakers raising state aid to public schools by $290 million over two years based on a revised distribution formula designed to direct resources to at-risk students statewide.
Alan Rupe, an attorney for the schools suing the state, said Brownback would leave a legacy that showed he tried to chart a course to limit investment in public education.
“I think he left the Kansas schools upside down financially in the biggest hole that possibly could have been created,” said Rupe, who believes the Legislature and Brownback fell short of the constitutional mandate to provide a suitable education to students.
If the Supreme Court rejects the two-year program, Colyer could preside over a special session of the Legislature as governor. Proposals to add substantially to K-12 funding would require another tax hike or deep cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Trabert, of the Kansas Policy Institute, contends total funding for education increased during Brownback’s tenure. Trabert praised Brownback’s support of a school choice program that offered scholarships for low-income students to attend private school.
“I think that Gov. Brownback deserves — as does the Legislature deserves — credit for increasing school funding even though there is evidence that funding didn’t need to increase,” Trabert said.
Brownback’s devotion to his Catholic faith led him to church every afternoon that his schedule allowed, said Dave DePue, an informal minister to state lawmakers with the organization Capitol Connection. That faith, DePue said, is what allowed Brownback to be “resilient”as he faced criticism or difficult decisions.
Hawkins said he was impressed when Brownback prayed over an issue before rendering a decision, an approach that revealed the governor to be a “faith-filled person.”
“He lives it,” the Republican House member said. “It’s not just words to him.”
Civil rights groups objected to Brownback’s stances on same-sex marriage and refusal to shield from discrimination members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
“In Gov. Brownback’s view, ‘religious freedom’ has meant issuing a license to discriminate against others, especially against LGBT Kansans,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
Kansas government suffered through annual budget shortfalls fostered by refusal by Brownback and the Legislature to turn back the clock on income taxes. Brownback said his tax policy was effective, but blamed recession in the oil and agriculture sectors for the state’s financial woes.
Higher general sales and cigarette taxes offered temporary relief, but Brownback balanced the budget by relying on billions of dollars originally dedicated to the Kansas Department of Transportation. He also borrowed $1 billion to prop up the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
Brownback’s popularity diminished as the public grew uneasy with an administration that made tax breaks the top priority.
Michael Smith, professor of political science at Emporia State University, said Brownback pushed a paradox of American politics to the limit.
“It is a truism that Americans espouse a narrative of generally anti-government views and conservative rhetoric,” Smith said. “Yet, idealistic conservative reformers never fail to snag on the horns of reality — voters like the sound of lower taxes and smaller government, but not when it comes to our own kids’ schools, the roads that carry us to work, aid to our cash-strapped rural hospitals and all the other basic services that make up what state government actually does.”