In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback Drives a Rightward Shift

By: - January 25, 2012 12:00 am

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican, is pushing what may be the boldest agenda of any governor this year. In the process, he is setting up a showdown with moderates in his own party.

TOPEKA, Kansas — For 14 years, Sam Brownback represented Kansas in the United States Senate, a chamber known for its slow and plodding pace. Now governor, Brownback is in no mood to wait.

The Republican, entering the second year of his term, is pushing what may be the boldest agenda of any governor in the nation. While Republican leaders in other states pursue narrower agendas or steer toward the political middle in a presidential election year, Brownback effectively is betting that Kansans want to see much more, not less, of the conservative vision he started building last year.

The governor’s to-do list amounts to a blueprint for fiscally and socially conservative state government. He wants lawmakers to slash and eventually eliminate the personal income tax while getting rid of 23 tax credit programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. He wants to cap state spending growth at 2 percent a year, a rate that could force deep budget cuts if it doesn’t keep up with inflation or a growing demand for state services. He is planning to overhaul a school financing formula that has been in place for two decades, favoring an approach that could result in less state money for large, poor districts.

Multi-billion dollar entitlement programs also are in the governor’s sights. Brownback wants to convert the state pension system from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution model, asking state workers to contribute more of their salaries to their retirement. On Medicaid, Brownback wants to place every one of the program’s roughly 330,000 enrollees into a private, managed-care system, which he says will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years.

Each of the proposals carries significant political risks for Brownback and, if approved, would represent a considerable legislative achievement on its own. But the governor says he will be disappointed if he does not get all of them on his desk by the time the legislature wraps up its session in May. “They all lean up against each other,” Brownback told Stateline in an interview in his Capitol office last week. “I’m not sure which of those pieces you can pull out.”

Brownback’s agenda, meanwhile, sets up a key political showdown with moderates in his own party. Republicans have an overwhelming 92-to-33 majority in the state House of Representatives, and their caucus is dominated by Tea Party-backed conservatives. But a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats controls the 40-member state Senate, essentially standing between Brownback and his biggest policy goals. Observers inside and outside the statehouse believe Brownback’s sweeping agenda is intended to draw a bright line between the two factions of Kansas Republicans ahead of GOP primary elections in August, when a shift of just a few Senate seats could tilt the balance of power in his favor.

“I think he may want to create a bunch of tough votes for moderate Republicans,” says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and former consultant for Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius. “Certainly, the Brownback administration would be happy to get rid of six or eight of them.”

Moderates face reckoning

Once known for the kind of moderate Republicanism embodied by Bob Dole, Kansas swung sharply to the right during the last election cycle, so much so that many here wonder whether Dole could win a statewide election anymore.

The Brownback agenda

Brownback, a Tea Party favorite who sailed into office with 63 percent of the vote, represents the new face of Kansas Republicans. He spent his first year in office slashing the budget, abolishing whole agencies and even creating an Office of the Repealer, a new administrative post tasked with identifying and eliminating government regulations. A Catholic who is outspoken about his faith, he also signed some of the nation’s toughest anti-abortion bills into law and sought to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. In one of his most controversial moves, he made Kansas the only state to eliminate all funding for the arts, arguing it was not a core function of government and that private funds could be used instead.

The way Brownback sees it, “I’m the first conservative governor in probably 50 years in Kansas,” even though the state has elected six Republicans during that span.

This year, all legislative seats are up for election, with the 40 members of the state Senate facing the voters for the first time since the Tea Party became a powerful force at the polls. At least nine moderate Republican senators already are facing primary challenges from the right, and at least five of them will square off against current House members. Many members of the House are not shy about their disdain for the Senate, where several high-profile conservative bills, including a phasing out of the personal income tax, stalled last year.

The Senate is run by “liberal Republicans and Democrats,” says state Representative Larry Powell, a conservative who hopes to unseat moderate Senate President Stephen Morris in a primary.

The confrontational, House-versus-Senate dynamic has been palpable in the halls of the statehouse in the early days of this year’s legislative session. Earlier this month, in a move that some interpreted as opposition research gathering, a conservative state representative was caught secretly tape-recording one of the Senate moderates who is facing a primary challenge in the summer.

Brownback insists he will not get involved in the GOP primary process. But organizations with close ties to his administration have made clear that they intend to target moderates by funneling money and resources into primaries that are normally low-turnout affairs. The organizations include the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a political action committee affiliated with Koch Industries, a Wichita-based conglomerate that has funded conservative causes around the country.

“I know that’s a goal of a number of these conservative groups,” says Morris, the Senate president and a 20-year veteran of the chamber. “They want to purge the party of anyone that’s considered reasonable.”

Tax cuts as ‘centerpiece’

Before any primary votes are cast, however, lawmakers will weigh in on the governor’s proposals, beginning with the tax plan that he views as the centerpiece of his agenda and one that is necessary to help him accomplish his other goals.

Like most governors, Brownback says his top priority is creating jobs, and he firmly believes that tax cuts are the way to grow the economy. While Kansas is projecting a surplus and has an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent, two points below the national average, Brownback believes the state must do all it can to protect itself from sharp cutbacks in the federal budget, which he thinks are imminent. Kansas already felt the pain of proposed federal cutbacks earlier this month, when Boeing announced it would eliminate 2,100 jobs at an assembly plant in Wichita as a result of expected cuts in the defense budget.

“The federal bubble is bursting,” Brownback says.

To prepare, the governor is pushing what he calls a “fairer, flatter and simpler” plan that slashes the personal income tax from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent for income above $15,000 a year, and from 3.5 percent to 3 percent for income below $15,000. The proposal also would eliminate income taxes on tens of thousands of small businesses.

The governor and his economic team, including the former Reagan economist Arthur Laffer, argue that the lower income tax rates will immediately bring more people and companies to Kansas, leading to growth that can offset lost revenue and help the state pay for other changes in pensions, school funding and Medicaid.

Steve Anderson, Brownback’s budget director, regularly cites federal data showing that Kansans are moving to other states where personal income taxes are lower, while those who move to Kansas tend to come from states with higher income taxes. To Anderson, and to Brownback, the correlation is clear: People move where taxes are lower.

Others, however, say it is unlikely that many more people will move to Kansas searching for lower income taxes. Critics are also attacking the plan for its effects on low-wage earners. While Brownback talks about ending a tax system that “picks winners and losers,” his own Department of Revenue projected earlier this month that the poorest would collectively pay $90 million more under his proposal while the wealthy would see big savings. That is because the plan also keeps in place a 1-cent sales tax hike passed two years ago, and does away with tax credit programs that help the working poor. Democrats have zeroed in on the plan and even Brownback’s allies in the state House are proposing alternatives.

“It’s Robin Hood in reverse,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat, said of Brownback’s tax plan, according to The Associated Press. “This is stealing from the poor to give to the rich.”

More fights ahead

How Brownback’s tax plan and other policy proposals fare is likely to hinge on the moderate Republicans in the state Senate, some of whom have already expressed reservations about the other items on the governor’s list.

Morris, the Senate president, says he is wary of approving a “one size fits all” approach to school funding, suggesting that the debate over a new K-12 financing formula could be every bit as contentious as the fight over taxes. Meanwhile, Morris says he has difficulty adding up the numbers on Brownback’s proposed 2-percent cap on annual spending growth.

Increases in pension and Medicaid costs alone “could very well equal 4 or 5 percent every year in (spending) increases, which means that if you have a 2-percent cap, you’re going to have to go back and keep cutting other programs,” Morris says. “So I’m not sure how that would work.”

But Brownback is already well on his way to reshaping the state’s Medicaid system. The governor has broad leeway to make administrative changes on his own, and many lawmakers say the managed-care model is a near-certainty. The state recently put out a request-for-proposal to see which companies will run the new system.

“The honest truth is that the legislature cannot stop this process,” state Senator Vicki Schmidt, a moderate Republican, told a town hall meeting at a public library in Topeka last week. “The only way the legislature can stop this process is to not fund it, and if we were to not fund the contract, we would not have a Medicaid program, and that is not an answer.”

Brownback himself acknowledges that his agenda this year is “very aggressive,” but he does not see any of his proposals as particularly surprising. “I’ve heard of most of this stuff (in other states),” he says.

Indeed, other Republican-led states have experimented with many of the same changes Brownback is pushing: Florida, for instance, converted its Medicaid program into a managed care system, Michigan passed a sweeping tax cut and plenty of states cut back pension benefits for public workers last year. Brownback simply wants to make all of those changes simultaneously. 

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