Despite accomplishing much of his agenda – or perhaps, because of it – Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has run into a wave of negative repercussions that have roiled his prospects for re-election and ignited Democratic hopes in this deeply red state.
Elected three years ago as a leading conservative voice for making state government more business-friendly, Brownback has rolled over his opponents in Kansas to pass tax and spending cuts that seemed to pave a smooth path to a second term.
But recent developments have left his office on the defensive, illustrating the difficulties of putting some of his fiscal ideas into effect.
The state’s bond rating recently was downgraded over concerns the state would have to burn through its rainy day funds to make up for revenues lost to his tax cuts. Angry teachers have staged demonstrations at his public appearances and charged that his fiscal experiment will short schools and lead to crowded classrooms.
And the FBI has launched an inquiry into whether members of Brownback’s inner political circle tried to pressure companies to hire certain lobbyists close to Brownback’s administration.
Even Brownback’s admirers acknowledge that his aggressive agenda has complicated his future.
“Brownback has become a real reformer in the constellation of Republican governors,” said Phil Musser, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “That, of course, has political costs.”
Suddenly, Democratic groups that ignored Kansas in 2010, when Brownback won election by 30 points after giving up his U.S. Senate seat to run, are showing interest. A national party organization is training four field operatives to help Democratic candidates in the state and the Democratic Governors Association sent out a fundraising email touting Brownback’s leading opponent, Democratic state Rep. Paul Davis.
Recent polls have shown the race to be close, but Republicans enjoy a nearly 20-percentage advantage in registered voters, and Brownback predicts more will move his way later.
“You’re going to be in through late summer before they really pay attention to the race,” he said.
But Davis said he’s encouraged. “For a state that is very concerned about public education and values that, this is a lot of angst and a lot of concern about the direction we’re going,” Davis said.
Brownback, who grew up on a farm and was state agriculture secretary before being elected to the Senate, envisions using low taxes and other incentives to attract more businesses to replace the jobs being lost to declining agricultural and manufacturing employment. Job growth for the previous decade had been stagnant.
But his aggressive schedule for cutting tax rates has reduced revenue faster than economic growth can replace it. With the owners of 191,000 businesses exempted from paying anything at all and the top rate cut by 40 percent by 2018, tax collections are running 9 percent behind the previous year, with some estimates projecting the budget going into the red by mid-2017.
School officials and moderate Republican lawmakers are worried about the impact on education, which draws more than half the state’s revenues.
In rural Scott City, teachers have already agreed to a 2 percent pay cut to avoid layoffs, but parents are worried about larger classes, said Republican state Rep. Don Hineman, whose western Kansas district includes the town.
“It cuts across political philosophies when it comes to that subject,” Hineman said.
Some lawmakers worry that the state won’t be able to continue complying with a Kansas Supreme Court order to improve funding for poor districts.
Brownback insists that his fiscal plan will work by creating more revenue through new economic activity.
He points to 56,000 new private-sector jobs since he took office in January 2011. The state’s unemployment rate, 4.8 percent in April, was well below the national average.
“We just had such a bad situation in the state, we had to change things, and you couldn’t wait to do it,” Brownback said.
Brownback’s legislative critics say he is paying for his impatience and his drive to have GOP conservatives dominate state government. His opponent reported a surprisingly robust $1 million in cash contributions in less than five months at the end of last year, the latest figures available. Brownback raised $1.1 million in cash from donors in 2013.
But his many admirers in national conservative circles insist he will benefit in the long run by thinking big.
“It never surprises me that the most active governors have a dip in their popularity as their opponents go nuts,” said Grover Norquist, president of the influential conservative group Americans for Tax Reform.