The Buzz

The Back & Forth: Kansas wraps up its legislative session

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses the media on a proposed tax plan that he intends to sign if passed by the House, on Monday June 8, 2015, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses the media on a proposed tax plan that he intends to sign if passed by the House, on Monday June 8, 2015, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. AP

Buzz blog contributors who cover politics for The Star regularly chat about recent political news from Kansas, Missouri or our nation’s capital.

This week, Bryan Lowry and Hunter Woodall chat about Kansas wrapping up its legislative session.

Bryan: Hunter, congratulations on completing (um, perhaps surviving is a better word?) your first full legislative session as the Star’s Kansas statehouse correspondent.

It turned out to be a historic one, tying the 2015 session (which I covered for the Wichita Eagle) as the longest in the state’s history and culminating with the repeal of Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature tax cuts.

That’s a pretty memorable rookie season.

Why did the session last into June? This is like the steroids era of baseball where we’re seeing records broken or tied every other year.

Hunter: Thanks Bryan! So are you saying this was the Barry Bonds of legislative sessions?

I think the session lasted until June for a variety of reasons, but in large part because it’s almost impossible to please the three major factions in the Kansas Legislature (moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Democrats) on any one bill.

I don’t expect next year’s session to be nearly as long, but maybe that’s the rookie in me talking.

But Bryan, as a seasoned statehouse reporter, I was wondering about your thoughts on the governor now that the session is over. What’s it been like to watch the governor go from essentially the height of his power to days like this, where the GOP-controlled Legislature has soured on his cherished policy?

Bryan: I moved to Kansas on the one-year anniversary of the tax cuts’ implementation. At that point, the debate over the tax cuts was still very theoretical.

Yes, there were projections by the state’s own analysts that showed a deficit on the horizon, but Brownback and legislative leaders weren’t sweating it because the state still had hundreds of millions in its cash reserves. Brownback dismissed the warnings about the budget as Chicken Little talk.

Since then, what’s changed the most has been the governor’s relationship with the Legislature. Brownback’s office sent out an email this week attacking the “spend-happy legislature” and that would’ve been unimaginable when I started.

It’s easy to chalk the animosity up to the fact that there’s more moderates and Democrats in the Legislature now, but that overlooks the fact that there’s also a lot of conservatives who have been calling the governor out.

I don’t think the debate over the state’s finances is over. Kris Kobach, who I would consider the frontrunner to win the GOP nomination, is making opposition to the tax increase a central part of his platform.

Hunter: Kobach has clearly come out the strongest, or perhaps the loudest, with his denouncing this year’s new tax increases.

To my knowledge, he’s the only Kansas GOP candidate to appear on Fox News to talk up his candidacy. During Kobach’s appearance one person on the program even said “drain the Kansas swamp,” which tells you how much President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric may leap over into the 2018 race to become the next governor of Kansas.

Wichita Oil magnate Wink Hartman has been another Republican candidate for governor who’s been a vocal critic of the new tax plan.

Jim Barnett, another Republican candidate for governor who lost in the general election in 2006, was more supportive of the tax vote when I spoke to him earlier this month.

Bryan: Kobach’s tying the budget problems to illegal immigration (which is actually the plot to one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons) and while a lot of policy analysts will probably push back on that argument I think it could resonate with voters in a state that went for Trump by double digits.

Hunter: I think it’s too early to tell what kind of message will resonate with Kansas voters in 2018.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who hasn’t yet declared, is a little bit of the wild card in this race. So far, you have Hartman and Kobach running from the political right of the spectrum, while Barnett (and Ed O’Malley?) has taken some more moderate positions. I’m not sure where Colyer fits into the race in that sense, but it will be interesting to see if he does indeed jump in.

It may be that every Republican who jumps into the governor’s race increases the likelihood that Kobach comes out on top. I think we’ve both said before that it seems Kobach has a strong base of support in the state, which becomes key if it’s a crowded field, similar to how Missouri’s Republican primary for governor shook out last year.

Bryan: Colyer’s chances get a lot stronger if Brownback does land a job in the Trump administration and he gets to campaign as a sitting governor. He’ll be closely tied to Brownback either way, but if Brownback leaves Colyer will have an opportunity to reset the relationship with the Legislature and distinguish himself a bit from his current boss.

The Democratic primary is also intriguing just by the virtue that Democrats look like they’ll actually have a primary for the first time since ska was popular. What’s your take on the Democratic field?

Hunter: What’s striking to me is how undefined the Democratic field seems to be at the moment. You have Carl Brewer and Josh Svaty in the race right now, but it’s not clear how strong they’ll be as statewide candidates. Paul Davis opting for Congress instead of the governor’s mansion has really left the case to become the new standard bearer for the Democrats seemingly wide open.

Bryan: Before we finish, what was up with this Kanye West obsession this session? You and the AP’s John Hanna were posting daily videos and I think the governor even commented at one point.

Hunter: Back in my younger, healthier days I ran cross country and always found it easy to train to Kanye’s music. These days, I still find it helpful to listen to Kanye while I’m writing. He’s a pretty polarizing pop culture figure, so it was fun to see so many different people weigh in on him. When it comes to Kanye, many people clearly have a strong opinion. Kind of like Kansas politics.

Follow Bryan Lowry @BryanLowry3 and Hunter Woodall @HunterMw on Twitter.

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