Gov. Sam Brownback told a small group of Republican lawmakers that it would be politically better for him if they overrode his veto and repealed his tax cuts than if they passed a more conservative tax plan for him to sign, according to three lawmakers.
The closed-door meeting, which took place the morning of the day lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto of a tax bill, played a pivotal role in swaying a handful of conservative Republicans to join with moderates and Democrats in rolling back the governor’s signature tax cuts.
Other attendees confirmed that the meeting took place but disputed that the governor used that language. Brownback’s office neither denied nor confirmed the exchange.
“Governor Brownback worked with legislators throughout the session and proposed multiple and varied tax plans that did not unnecessarily harm Kansas families. Unfortunately, the legislature chose to go another way,” Melika Willoughby, Brownback’s spokeswoman, said in an email Thursday morning.
The repeal of Brownback’s tax policy comes amid speculation that the governor could be tapped by President Donald Trump for an ambassadorship in the near future.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said he called the meeting after Brownback announced his plan to veto a $1.2 billion tax increase.
The bill, which was passed by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, raises income tax rates and rolls back an exemption for business owners. It lacked a veto-proof majority at that point, and Hawkins wanted to explore alternatives that could garner conservative support.
The group of lawmakers “was brought together to see what we could do as far as finding a tax bill that Republicans across the spectrum could support, that we could get passed,” Hawkins said. “And the governor was invited, and surprisingly enough, the governor showed up.”
The lawmakers at the meeting were a mix of moderates and conservatives, he said.
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, said she had approached Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer the night before and pressed him on the need for the governor to attend to give lawmakers guidance on a path forward.
Brownback was joined by Tim Shallenburger, his legislative liaison, and Brandon Smith, his policy director, according to Hawkins. Nine GOP lawmakers from multiple factions, including House Speaker Ron Ryckman of Olathe and House Majority Leader Don Hineman of Dighton, also were there.
Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican who attended the meeting, said a core group of GOP lawmakers had been working for months to craft a plan the governor would sign.
“We would think that we would get someplace, and then we’d hear that the governor wouldn’t sign it. So you’re kind of back to the drawing board,” she said.
Before the tax increase, Kansas faced projected budget shortfalls of almost $900 million over the next two fiscal years and an order from the state Supreme Court to overhaul the state’s school funding system.
Hawkins said lawmakers discussed options at the meeting and that after about 15 minutes, Brownback was asked if he was “ready for the train that’s going to come rolling over” him if he didn’t sign a tax bill.
“And that’s when the governor said, ‘You know something, I’m completely fine with that. It’s politically better for me to be run over by the train than it is to sign a tax bill,’ ” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said he didn’t want to speculate about whether Brownback was referring to his chances of landing a job in the Trump administration as the president pursues tax cuts at the federal level, but that he interpreted it to mean that the governor would never sign a tax bill.
“It was so frustrating to have our governor refuse to lead in this situation. He would rather protect his own personal political interests than be a statesman and stand up and do what’s right,” he said.
Davis remembered the exchange similarly, recalling that the gist of what the governor told the lawmakers present was that “it would be better for me politically if you just overrode me.”
Both Davis and Hawkins voted in favor of overriding the governor later that day after previously opposing the tax bill and cited the conversation as a key moment in pushing them to that decision.
“We’re there to govern, and when you’re told by your governor that there’s almost nothing that he would sign, and what he would sign is not politically possible, you know, you’re kind of put in a really hard position,” Davis said.
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican with a strong anti-tax stance, disputed that characterization of the conversation.
“I don’t recall him saying it would be politically better to roll him. I think he indicated it’s possible he could get rolled,” she said.
She also disputed that her GOP colleagues had come to the meeting ready to consider a variety of options.
“You could tell that the liberals did not come to listen. They came to talk,” she said.
The debate over the tax increase promises to dominate the next election. Two days after the override vote, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach launched his campaign for governor in 2018 at an event in Lenexa where he accused lawmakers who voted for the bill of stealing from hard-working Kansans.
Hawkins said far-right groups are already working to recruit a primary opponent against him in Wichita.
Landwehr accused her colleagues of trying to avoid responsibility for voting for the tax increase.
“I’m not going to put words in anyone’s mouth from that meeting. I’m responsible for my vote. Dan’s responsible for his vote,” she said.
Williams said she voted against the override because the tax bill is retroactive to Jan. 1 and she thinks it raises rates too high, but she backed up her colleagues’ account that Brownback said it would be politically better for him if the Legislature overrode him.
“He absolutely did say that. He 100 percent said that. And I’m the one who asked the question,” Williams said.
Williams said she asked the governor to lay out what tax proposals he would accept.
“I’m not going to get the verbiage exactly right, but he said it might be better politically to take the override,” she said. “I was stunned.”
Williams said Brownback never explicitly said, “I will veto anything you send me,” but that “over the course of time, it became understood by many that likely nothing would be good enough.”
Hawkins said Brownback was even asked whether he would sign a flat-tax plan, something he had supported earlier in the session, and his response was that it would raise too much money.
Hineman would not comment on the meeting. Ryckman pointed to the explanation of his vote that he submitted when he cast one of the decisive votes to override the governor.
“We’ve worked in good faith to find the middle ground. However, it became clear that finding the middle ground on a plan the governor would sign was out of reach. This isn’t the plan I supported, but it’s the plan that the majority of this House supported,” Ryckman said. “It’s time to provide certainty for Kansas.”
Williams said she pressed Brownback on whether he had exhausted all the options of possible spending cuts to avoid a tax increase.
“And his response was we’ve done just about everything,” she said.
“What we ended up with is the acknowledgment that it would be easier to do the override, and we were uncertain on everything else.”
Reps. Don Schroeder of Hesston and Russ Jennings of Lakin, two moderates who had backed the rollback effort since the start of the session, did not recall Brownback saying it would be politically better for him to be overridden.
But both men said lawmakers left the meeting convinced of the necessity of an override.
“I walked out of there feeling that there’s no room for compromise at this point,” Jennings said.
Jennings said the governor had reverted to his stance from the start of the session of wanting to fix the budget hole through hikes in consumption taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.
Schroeder said Brownback said something “to the effect that the Legislature may have to run over him in order to pass the tax package.” Schroeder said that remark caught some of the attendees by surprise.
“I think it was probably something of a little bit of a pivotal meeting where people made up their minds at that point, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to do it without the governor,’ ” he said. “That was my impression.”