For the rest of his time in office, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will face a series of veto fights with a state Legislature elected on the promise of undoing his legacy.
This will be the case whether Brownback remains in office through the end of 2018 or whether he leaves in the next few months for a job in President Donald Trump’s administration, a prospect that has been highly speculated.
Brownback has used his veto power this session to block lawmakers from rolling back his signature income tax cuts and to prevent the state from expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act to provide health coverage for 150,000 low-income Kansans.
Sen. John Doll, a moderate Republican from Garden City, predicted a cycle of vetoes and override attempts as lawmakers look for a fix for the state’s budget problems and respond to a Kansas Supreme Court order for a new school finance formula.
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“We’re going to continue to do this,” Doll said.
The Legislature will pass major legislation that pushes the state in a more moderate direction, Doll said, which “will be vetoed, and then we’ll battle to see if we can get over the top of the veto.”
Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, said that Brownback is unlikely to compromise on Medicaid or other issues.
“The advantage of being a lame duck is that you have absolutely no incentive to work with them, so, no, I don’t see him giving an inch,” he said
Brownback barely won a veto fight with the Legislature to preserve — for the time being — an income tax exemption for business owners that the state adopted in 2012 at his urging. The Senate fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to force the bill into law after the House successfully voted to override.
Lawmakers of both parties expect the conflict on taxes to continue, and now the governor faces a showdown over Medicaid expansion as supporters plan to attempt an override this month.
A source close to the governor predicted that “there’s going to be some kind of deal on revenue” before the end of the session, but that no deal would emerge on Medicaid.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, compared the situation to “a high-stakes poker game.” If lawmakers call his bluff and override a veto, Brownback will have “no more chips to play,” Carmichael said.
Brownback has vetoed 13 bills during his tenure as governor, but his two vetoes this session have inspired more public backlash than usual because they were on issues that many new lawmakers staked their campaigns on — tax reform and Medicaid expansion.
Asked about the vetoes, Melika Willoughby, Brownback’s spokeswoman, said that the “voters of Kansas twice sent Sam Brownback to the governor’s office supporting his positions of low taxes, defending the lives of the unborn, commitment to developing a new school finance system that puts Kansas students first, and his opposition to Obamacare.”
Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who oversaw the rollout of the Affordable Care Act as a member of former President Barack Obama’s cabinet, said in an interview Wednesday that if Brownback believes that elections have consequences, he should let Medicaid expansion become law.
“The Republicans run the House and the Senate, and overwhelmingly they have said this is a good policy for the state,” Sebelius said the day before Brownback issued his veto. “And I hope he listens.”
Last fall, voters ousted a number of conservative lawmakers who were ideologically aligned with the governor. They were replaced with moderate Republicans and Democrats who don’t see eye to eye with the second-term chief executive.
First-term Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Republican, said that many lawmakers see Brownback “as a hindrance to the process.”
Brownback pointed to this ideological shift in a letter to newspapers the day he vetoed the Medicaid bill, saying that “liberals in the Kansas legislature want us to expand Obamacare. I am standing up for Kansans and saying no.”
A year ago, the idea that Brownback would have to stand up to “liberals in the Kansas Legislature” would be absurd.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said that during the last four years, conservatives could find the 63 votes needed to pass a bill in the House “pretty much anytime” they wanted. That’s no longer the case, even if conservatives hold key leadership positions, he said.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, the conservatives are still in charge up here.’ No, we’re not,” Hawkins said. “If we were, we wouldn’t be doing some of the things that we’re doing right now.” Hawkins called Brownback’s vetoes necessary.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Brownback is in “preservation mode” and that the uncertainty about whether Brownback will remain in Kansas gives the moderate and Democratic coalition an incentive to stand firm. Brownback has refused to comment on the possibility that he will take an ambassadorship, but he’s also been unwilling to promise he’ll remain through the end of his term.
“The question is how long preservation mode lasts. … It could go on for almost two years. If he leaves, everything’s up for grabs,” Beatty said.
Beatty said the governor’s vetoes on taxes and Medicaid could actually weaken his involvement in the school finance debate because lawmakers will “start trying to make bills that are veto-proof.”
The governor still has some conservative allies left, however.
Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, has been a vocal critic of much of the new, more-moderate Legislature’s actions. He’s taken positions in agreement with Brownback — voting against the tax package and Medicaid expansion. But those stances have little to do with Brownback, he said.
“We may share some common ideologies, but I could care less about his legacy — that’s his legacy. There have been, frankly, issues that I think he has not been conservative on. But it’s not about him, it’s about the principles,” Whitmer said.
Despite his vetoes, Brownback is still exerting influence over legislation. Tax committees in both the House and Senate have been developing a flat tax proposal, which legislative leaders believe the governor would be more likely to accept — and the House tax committee voted this past week to send one plan to the floor.
However, it could be difficult to find the votes to pass the flat tax legislation, according to Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican who said he anticipates more conflict between Brownback and lawmakers on taxes before the session’s done.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said that instead of a flat tax, lawmakers should send the same tax plan that passed earlier in the session to Brownback again.
“That seems to me a much better way to handle the situation than to hoist something up that’s going to fail,” Hensley said. “You’re just going through the motions when you do something like that.”