Could Kansas more easily address its budget problems if Gov. Sam Brownback leaves the state for a new job?
The answer, from some lawmakers and analysts, appears to be yes — with important qualifications.
The question would have been inconceivable a year ago. Brownback, elected to a second term in 2014, was fully expected to serve his entire second term and leave office early in 2019.
But persistent rumors of a job for Brownback in Donald Trump’s new administration have led to a discussion among a handful of lawmakers about the impact a Brownback resignation would have on next year’s legislative session, which is expected to be difficult.
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Some think it wouldn’t make much difference. The state’s revenue shortfall is so deep and structural, many lawmakers say, that rebalancing the state’s books will be difficult and time-consuming no matter who’s in the governor’s office.
And Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer might be as committed to Brownback’s budget theories as the governor himself. Colyer would also need to rely, at least for now, on the same advisers as Brownback.
Others, though, say Brownback’s departure might make it politically easier to reset the state’s tax and spending discussion in 2017. Roughly a third of next year’s Legislature will be new to the job, they point out, and most were elected on an anti-Brownback platform.
A Brownback departure clears the decks for everyone, they believe.
“He’s the least popular governor in the history of the world,” said state Rep. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican from Mission Hills who will be in the state Senate next year. “Removing that might make people more optimistic, in general.”
“His absence alone (would) be a relief to many,” said state Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan.
The likelihood of a Brownback resignation remains unclear. Asked at a recent news conference about leaving for a federal job, Brownback declined to answer.
“As I’ve said at the outset, I said this a week or two ago, I’m just making no comments about anything regarding the Trump administration,” the governor told reporters Tuesday.
He slapped his hands on the lectern for emphasis.
Through his press office, the governor declined to comment on the impact his departure would have on the Legislature next year.
Kansas GOP executive director Clay Barker doesn’t believe Brownback’s resignation would simplify the budget debate, although “I can see that as an argument. On the other hand, the governor is pretty flexible. He’d be willing to work with everyone who’s there.”
Some Brownback allies agree.
“I’m not sure that much would change” if Brownback leaves, said state Rep. Keith Esau, an Olathe Republican. “Most of the debate is going to be within the House members anyway.”
Yet recent history suggests a change at the top of Kansas government can have some influence on the legislative process.
In 2009, President Barack Obama named then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as his secretary for Health and Human Services. Sebelius was in the seventh year of her service as Kansas governor.
She was deeply unpopular with majority Republicans in the Legislature at the time. Passing her major legislative priorities was extraordinarily difficult, and frustrating for politicians in both parties.
After she resigned, then-Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson became the state’s chief executive. The former legislator — and former Republican — quickly found ways to reach agreement with lawmakers. In 2010 he signed a three-year, one-cent increase in the state sales tax that provided more than $300 million for state programs.
Days after taking over for Sebelius, Parkinson announced a settlement in a long-standing dispute over a new power plant in western Kansas, an agreement that angered some Democrats but pleased Republican lawmakers.
Both issues seemed intractable with Sebelius in office. Parkinson changed the equation.
“Not that Republicans necessarily loved Parkinson,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who worked for a time in Sebelius’ office. “But you didn’t have six years of animosity built up. And honestly, Kathleen was not the easiest person to work across the aisle.”
State Sen. Jeff King, a Republican from Independence, Kan., remembered the changed tone when Sebelius left.
“Absolutely it happened,” he said. “Mark Parkinson was a fresh face with a different approach.”
Some outsiders cautioned against a close comparison between Sebelius’ departure and a possible departure for Brownback. Sebelius was a Democrat in a Republican state, making cooperation with the Legislature difficult under any circumstances.
Brownback’s disagreements, on the other hand, are with members of his own party as well as Democrats.
“If called to serve in the Trump administration, he should go,” argued Chris Pumpelly, a Democratic strategist. “Kansas needs a new governor with a clean slate.”
That new governor would be Colyer, a Johnson County physician who is believed to have an ambition to win the job on his own. Several Republicans said Colyer probably would be as reluctant as Brownback to compromise on tax and spending issues, making progress less possible.
On the other hand, Colyer might be interested in moving away from some of the controversies surrounding Brownback.
“Having a different governor who is less vested in protecting Brownback’s policies would open up more room for compromise with the new Legislature,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
It’s possible Brownback will decide to stay in Kansas, of course, making the speculation about his replacement an academic exercise. His spokeswoman said in a statement that Brownback “looks forward to working with the new legislature to make Kansas the best state in America.”
Barker said Brownback is talking openly about budget options. He also said the governor probably would have some job in the Trump administration if he wants one.
But King, the state senator who did not run for re-election, thinks a Brownback resignation might help the state in a sticky situation.
“The Kansas Legislature, and Kansas politics right now, need a collective exhale,” he said. “If a fresh face in the governor’s office would help that, it would not be the worst thing that could happen.”
The Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.