Gov. Sam Brownback once wielded enough power to bring state government into line with his conservative ideology.
During his first six years in office, he ushered in large tax cuts, privatized the state’s Medicaid system and enacted massive changes to welfare and other programs with the enthusiastic backing of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
But with only a year left in office — or perhaps just a few weeks or months — Brownback finds himself fighting to stay relevant in a Capitol where many are ready for him to move on to the Trump administration.
With a Kansas Legislature that’s grown cold to his ways, he may have exhausted any political capital he had left with conservative GOP lawmakers last week when he proposed hundreds of millions in additional school funding, counting on money from a tax increase that he’s routinely condemned because it rolled back his signature tax cuts.
“The governor is running short on friends right now in the Legislature,” said Rep. Blake Carpenter, a conservative Derby Republican.
“I think he’s lost a lot of trust from the Legislature and the electorate,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican.
“He’s an unpopular lame duck without really any political or policy capital, other than the fact that he has a veto pen,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
In a statement Friday, Brownback’s office said he is “willing to work with leadership and members of both chambers to enact policy that furthers the interests of Kansas.”
“He understands that there are a number of legislators with their own ideas and he is certainly willing to review any alternative proposals the legislature sends to his desk,” the statement said.
In his State of the State address last week, the governor called for an additional $600 million in school funding over five years as lawmakers try to pass a school finance formula that the Kansas Supreme Court will deem constitutional.
But Brownback’s budget doesn’t show how Kansas will pay for $400 million of the proposed increase. And the request is a break from the governor’s tradition of fighting with the court over education.
Republican leaders slammed the proposal immediately and continued to do so throughout the week.
“I don’t think leaders can logistically move from a right position to a left, or a left position to a right, and still hold the confidence of the electorate,” Wagle said. “That’s a tremendous movement we’ve seen from this governor, and the numbers don’t balance.”
In response to the criticism, Brownback issued a statement advising lawmakers to keep their feelings in check: “It is neither constructive nor wise to hold hostage other critical initiatives due to political gamesmanship over disagreement on the school funding piece of my proposal.”
The governor has taken a series of political hits in his second term. In the 2016 election cycle, many moderate Republicans and Democrats ran against his policies and unseated conservative lawmakers.
Last year, lawmakers approved a tax increase and then overrode a Brownback veto in a bipartisan push to end revenue shortfalls and budget cuts that followed the governor’s 2012 tax cuts.
“I fully anticipated him to be a lame duck governor,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican. “We fixed all the crises for him. I thought he would have just a swan-song end of the year, but he seems to be wanting to re-engage. But the ship has already left the port.”
Brownback started to disengage last year, a process that accelerated in the fall when he thought he was nearing confirmation as Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He began to hand off responsibilities to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
“The governor’s been absent for about a year,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor. “I mean, he really has.”
Brownback said late last year that Colyer would take the lead on developing the budget proposal. Soon after, it was Colyer, not Brownback, who announced a Cabinet appointment.
But since the start of the year, when his nomination returned to square one, Brownback has made clear that he is still the governor and will remain in office until he wins confirmation in Washington.
That’s a tough turn to try to make, Denning said.
“There’s no putting the cat back in the bag,” he said. “We’re already to the point where we already know what the legislative bodies want to do.”
Republicans for the most part do seem united in one sense within the Kansas Statehouse, something that happened rarely during the 2017 session. Only this time, it’s in widespread annoyance at the governor.
“He’s alienated some people with his extreme budget,” said Rep. Joy Koesten, a moderate Leawood Republican. “Even his speech Tuesday was such a disappointment.”
A lack of confidence in Brownback also is apparent.
“I don’t know really where he stands,” said Sen. Dinah Sykes, a moderate Lenexa Republican and critic of Brownback. “Because he’s been out the door and then came back and tries to reestablish himself, but still trying to go to D.C. It’s like, is he really here? Or is he just trying to buy time?”
Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, said the governor would still get support on things like abortion legislation. But confusion among Republicans is clear.
It’s odd when Democrats are praising a Brownback budget and conservatives are lambasting it, Whitmer said.
“This is not Sam,” Whitmer said. “Does this budget look like Sam? I don’t know. We don’t know. We can’t figure out.”
Brownback’s office admitted in the Friday statement that Colyer did play a role in the budget process.
“Governor Brownback is the Governor,” the statement said. “While Dr. Colyer did have input in the process and assist where requested, namely in emphasizing educational outcomes like increasing our graduation rate and raising teacher pay, in addition to enhancements at DCF, ultimately all decisions were made by the governor.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said shortly before the session that there was a time when it seemed like Colyer was going to be the governor. There were conversations and he was hiring staff, Ryckman said, and Colyer was preparing for the State of the State.
“In life there’s a lot of things you can’t control,” Ryckman said before the start of the 2018 session. “And one of them is who’s the governor.”
After a contentious meeting last week where House lawmakers were briefed on Brownback’s budget, Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, was among those with little kindness left for the state’s leading Republican.
“I think we all realize that he’s here for just a short time longer,” she said. “And the past has shown that he’s not leading on this issue with fiscal responsibility.”