The Sam Brownback era in Kansas government is coming to an end.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced the Republican governor’s appointment as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The details of Brownback’s departure still must be worked out. The Senate must consider the nomination, and it’s possible Brownback will stay in office here until that happens.
When he does leave, we know this: History will not be kind.
Brownback took the oath as governor in 2011 with the political wind at his back. The state was still in a deep recession — as was the nation — but Kansans had high hopes for their newly-elected chief executive.
Conservative Kansans were particularly enthused. After years of moderate Republicans in the governor’s office, as well as the dreaded Democrats Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, many right-of-center Kansans were anxious to demonstrate what true conservatism could do for the state.
Sam Brownback will depart as one of the least popular governors in America, leaving behind the worst governing record in the modern history of Kansas.
It’s a needless tragedy. Kansans are conservative, fiscally and socially, but they expect government to work — to educate children, protect the public, and most importantly, to pay its bills. Very few voters were clamoring for a massive tax cut when they supported Brownback overwhelmingly in 2010.
But Brownback seriously misread their message, a mistake he would make repeatedly. Once in office, he linked arms with hyper-conservative state legislators to concoct a tax cut package he promised would bring a “shot of adrenaline” to the state’s economy.
He toured the country touting his achievement. He called it a real live experiment, as if the lives and health of his constituents were things to be risked. Supply-side economists boldly predicted a Kansas miracle, with Brownback the conquering hero. Instead, predictably and immediately, the Kansas budget deficit exploded, while job growth remained largely stuck. The state launched round after round of one-time budget fixes, spending cuts and sin and sales taxes designed to cover the shortfalls.
Brownback staffers began begging businesses to move across the state line, promising tax credits, subsidies, anything to cut a Kansas-side ribbon.
Then came excuses. It’s President Barack Obama’s fault, some said. No: slumping agriculture and oil production. And the media. Always the media.
Even members of the governor’s Republican Party questioned Brownback’s approach. In 2016, voters routed many of the governor’s right-wing allies in the Legislature, replacing them with moderate Republicans and Democrats.
Those lawmakers began righting the ship this year when they overrode Brownback’s veto to approve $1.2 billion in tax hikes over two years. But they and Kansans know the truth: It will take the state two generations to recover from Brownback’s experiment.
And that isn’t the end of the story.
Brownback also leaves a legacy of harsh treatment of the poor. The small humiliations — remember the limit on welfare credit cards? — were coupled with a shift of the tax burden to regressive sales taxes. He resolutely refused to consider expanding Medicaid in Kansas, leaving his less well-to-do neighbors to fend for themselves.
Schools have been underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars, the state Supreme Court has said. Colleges and universities have faced higher tuition costs during the Brownback era. Scandals and budget problems have plagued Osawatomie and Larned state hospitals. Prisons have deteriorated amid reports of overworked guards and angry inmates. The list goes on.
Brownback deserves credit for his efforts to improve water quality and availability in Kansas, making progress on a critical issue that will stay with the state for years. He worked to bring economic development to poor areas of Kansas City, Kan. Wind energy has grown in the state.
And Brownback’s career as a congressman and U.S. senator remains a highlight of his resume. He was conservative, of course, but with interesting and compelling twists: His work on the Sudanese refugee problem was exemplary. He worked on criminal justice reform. His time in office has been informed by a deep religiosity, developed during his battle with cancer as a younger man.
He urged the state to focus on the family, an admirable goal.
That’s what makes his time as governor so sad and so baffling. Sam Brownback had every chance to make Kansas a better place. Even after the tax plan cratered, he might have rallied the state with humility and hard work. Neither approach seemed to interest him at all. Now here we are.
As he prepares to leave, we can safely say Kansans will never forget Sam Brownback. Tragically, that isn’t a compliment. It’s an observation and a warning to governors yet to come.