Sam Brownback bashing has become something of a sport. And, yes, I’ve done it, too. If you Google Brownback, up pops a tsunami of anti-Brownback articles and opinions, not only by the liberal press but occasionally in conservative publications. Nearly all present an unflattering picture of the Kansas governor and his policies, particularly his massive income tax cuts.
Yet, a majority of Kansans re-elected Brownback after four years, so they must have liked what he was doing enough to send him back to Topeka. Those voices are rarely heard.
In the spirit of fairness, I will attempt to air those favorable views:
Brownback, overall, has not been bad for education, and some might even say he has been good. K-12 funding has increased on his watch, although not to the extent many would deem adequate. Even his strongest critics would have to admit, though, that he has bolstered the state’s pension plan for teachers and other public employees (KPERS) — in fact probably saving KPERS from insolvency.
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Perhaps Brownback’s greatest achievement is the elimination of the corrupt school finance formula for K-12 education, which punished Johnson County schools and other districts throughout the state. He should get lots of credit for slaying the monster that was created in 1992.
Universities and colleges — relatively speaking — are being well funded under Brownback, particularly community and technical colleges, which have received millions in extra funding through Brownback’s technical education initiative.
The University of Kansas Medical Center broke ground recently on a new Health Education Building. Brownback promoted and won a $25 million state investment in the project. This project will benefit the Kansas City region for decades to come.
Compared, say, to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who just implemented a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin, Brownback has been a dream for higher education. Brownback campaigned on his priority of higher education, and even in the worst of the budget cuts, he did not look to higher education to balance his budget.
Speaking of cuts, Brownback avoided draconian cuts supported by conservatives in the Legislature, who said we had a spending problem, not a revenue problem. It was Brownback who pushed for a sales tax increase to help plug the hole created by income tax cuts and elimination of taxes for 330,000 businesses. Had he not done so, the pain across the state would have been unbearable.
That’s not to say Brownback has refrained from frugal conservativism. He has shrunk state government dramatically.
The governor has avoided corruption. He was exonerated from charges relating to campaign loans.
I do not think Brownback cut the top income tax rates to pay off the billionaire Koch brothers, who have been his strong allies. Rather, I think Brownback adheres to the conservative philosophy that reducing taxes on income and investment promotes economic growth. Thus, you could say Brownback is sincere, whether you agree with him or not.
The real measure of the Brownback legacy will be whether the Kansas economy did, indeed, boom, due to drastically cutting taxes.
I have been very critical of this tax-cut policy, but to be fair, it may be too soon to measure the impact of these tax policies on the state. I remain skeptical that his supply-side economics will pay off but I’m willing to agree that it may be premature to judge the outcome. The governor has, in the meantime, put hundreds of millions of dollars in the pockets of Kansans to spend as they wish. That could, eventually, help increase consumption.
If Brownback were to run for a third term — which is unconstitutional — I suspect he would be re-elected again. Some of that support would reflect his social policies on abortion, gay rights, same-sex marriage and other controversial issues, which many Kansans, particularly conservative Republicans, find appealing.
But plenty of other Kansans also believe in the tax cuts and think the state is on the right track.
This column is for them.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.