Government & Politics

Brownback-Wagle relationship appears on the mend, but will it last?

The relationship between Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and Gov. Sam Brownback has been rocky at times this legislative session.
The relationship between Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and Gov. Sam Brownback has been rocky at times this legislative session. The Associated Press

Gov. Sam Brownback and Senate President Susan Wagle — once natural allies supporting tax cuts and smaller government — have frequently been on opposite sides this year, trading volleys over the state’s financial problems.

In December, Wagle, of Wichita, said lawmakers were concerned Brownback was looking for a “ticket to D.C.” and that she was concerned the governor would not offer a budget with a long-term structural fix.

In February, Brownback said one tax plan put forward by Wagle “needlessly harms the real people that serve as the lifeblood of Kansas.”

But now the strained relationship between the two high-ranking Republican officials shows signs of mending.

How well the two work together could affect what gets done in the statehouse, and how quickly. Lawmakers will return to work May 1 with key issues unresolved: creating a new way to fund public schools, finding a way to pay for it and balancing the budget.

Kansas faces budget shortfalls of about $1 billion over the next two years, and lawmakers have a June 30 deadline from the state Supreme Court to develop a new education funding plan.

Wagle and Brownback have sparred several times this year. Primarily, they have clashed over the governor’s original tax and budget proposal, which Wagle has said relied too much on one-time revenue sources and didn’t structurally balance the budget. Brownback said a tax plan developed by the Senate with Wagle’s blessing “punishes the middle class.”

Wagle’s frustrations with the governor seemed to peak after a meeting with Senate Republicans in early March.

The governor’s spokeswoman had released another statement that week criticizing the Senate president by name. And conservative Republicans in the Senate had continued to step up their criticism of Wagle.

This time, Brownback’s staff was publicly criticizing Wagle for trying to persuade the governor to use his executive power, known as allotments, to cut the budget to help mend the state’s financial woes. At the time, Kansas faced a roughly $280 million budget shortfall by the end of June.  

“President Wagle has repeatedly requested the Governor cut K-12 education funding by approximately $100 million. The Governor believes such an allotment to K-12 would be unwise,” especially as Kansas remains in school finance litigation, Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said at the time.

Wagle described the criticisms coming from her fellow Republicans as a “daily surprise.”

“I was surprised at being named in press releases from their office,” Wagle said, as her chief of staff and spokeswoman further defended her. “Our meetings with the governor are with the leadership team. And I continually am named in press releases from them.

“We’ve all been united in asking the governor to allot,” Wagle said of Republican legislative leaders.

But Brownback decided not to cut the budget himself and continued to emphasize that the Legislature should find a solution for the shortfall.

He also vetoed a tax increase passed with bipartisan support that would have raised more than $1 billion for the state over two years. Wagle did not vote for the bill.

But last week, Wagle and Brownback were back on the same page on an issue, and even jointly fought a losing battle.

Brownback and Wagle both backed a proposal that would have set a single tax rate for all personal income and would have eliminated tax exemptions for certain business income favored by the governor.

The Senate overwhelmingly rejected the plan. But afterward, Brownback and Wagle praised each other.

Wagle went out of her way to thank the governor for his willingness to compromise on what a new tax policy will look like. During a meeting with Senate Republicans, she read from a news release Brownback’s office had sent in support of the flat tax plan.

Leading Republicans also said they were aiming to get 21 votes, the exact number needed to pass a bill, rather than trying to get the 27 votes needed to override Brownback’s veto.

That was a big shift from earlier this year, when Wagle said lawmakers probably would need a veto-proof majority to pass a tax increase.

“I think that (Brownback) softening his position will help us tremendously,” Wagle said after the flat tax bill failed to pass.

At a recent news conference, Brownback spoke about Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican.

“I’m glad the president and Sen. Denning were willing to move forward with it,” Brownback said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said Brownback and Wagle were never actually too far apart.

Wagle has cast several votes effectively siding with the governor — and against the wishes of other Senate Republicans, who have often been more moderate than her.

“I think she’s very much on Sam Brownback’s side. I’ve told her that,” Hensley said.

Wagle voted against overriding Brownback’s veto of House Bill 2178, which would have raised personal income tax rates and added a third bracket for higher-income earners. She had urged Brownback to allow the bill to become law, however.

On Medicaid expansion, Wagle sided with Brownback and voted against the bill. And she voted in favor of the flat tax.

Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said public disputes between leaders within the same party can happen, and that factors like future ambitions and personality play a role.

“In more normal times, one of the things that casual observers can kind of forget is there’s more going on in the state Legislature and presidency than just party and ideology,” Smith said.

Wagle’s predecessor said he doesn’t think the camaraderie between the two leading Republicans will continue.

The next time Brownback faces a choice about significant legislation, tensions may rise again, said Stephen Morris, a moderate Republican and former Senate president who was ousted by a conservative primary challenger in 2012.

“I’d certainly like to see Brownback quit worrying about his ego and try to do what’s best for the state, and the same thing with her,” Morris said.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw