Gov. Sam Brownback walked into a packed room of reporters Thursday afternoon and said it was “the day you’ve all been waiting for.”
The White House announced Wednesday night that President Donald Trump had picked Brownback to become the next ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
As governor, Brownback gained national attention for his conservative vision of state government. His landmark 2012 tax cuts came to define the Republican’s more than six years as governor.
Brownback, whose relationship with the press had been fraught, said he was amazed that a tax cut in a Midwestern state gained so much attention and came to dominate the national debate over tax policy.
Asked about whether the rollback of the policy this year diminished his legacy, Brownback told the room of reporters they would have to decide that.
“People will be dissecting it. People are writing books on it now to determine, OK, is this the right way to go? And I do think that centerpiece issue that you see on small-business tax (cuts) ... will be something that will continue to pop up around the country, and I hope it comes back in Kansas,” he said.
Brownback argued that the tax cuts succeeded in creating jobs but that their impact was muted because of other economic factors.
“What failed to materialize as much as we needed to because of the recession was revenue for the state because we hit a commodity rut, hit it big,” he said.
During his re-election campaign in 2014, Brownback said his goal for the next four years was to bring 25,000 new jobs to Kansas per year. But from January 2015 to June 2017, private sector employment in Kansas has grown by just 8,100 jobs, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
State projections showed the tax cuts cost the state an estimated $3.6 billion in individual income tax revenue over a span of five fiscal years.
Brownback said if there were one thing he could change, it would have been “the price of oil and the price of wheat,” and continued to point to what he saw as a recession that he said caused economic struggles in Kansas.
Brownback’s staff has spent the last few weeks attacking the Legislature for the tax cut rollback, but as he gets ready to depart, Brownback looked for a silver lining.
“Income taxes are lower now than when I took office,” Brownback said. “I wish they were lower still.”
During the roughly half-hour news conference Thursday, Brownback pointed to one issue other than taxes as being the most important to his governorship.
“I signed 19 pro-life bills,” Brownback said of the new abortion restrictions adopted during his tenure. “The inherent dignity of human life at every stage is a central issue of our day, and that’s really the one that I’m most pleased with.”
It is unclear when he will resign from office. Brownback said he did not have a timetable for when a Senate confirmation vote would take place.
Brownback said he hoped people would look around at certain programs and changes and remember him.
He pointed to accomplishments like a fourth-grade reading program and the University of Kansas Medical Center building that just opened, and said he wanted people to be able to say, “That was something that happened during the Brownback administration.”
“I hope what they’ll end up doing is looking around and (say), ‘You know, Sam Brownback helped on that,’ ” he said.
He pointed to the fact that the state receives 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources even after repealing a government mandate as proof that his free-market strategy worked. He said the state experienced a reduction in the poverty rate during his tenure, proof that his welfare reforms were working.
The governor’s imminent departure comes after months of conflict with the Legislature, which shifted to the political center amid backlash against Brownback’s policies.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said Brownback leaves behind “a disaster” in Kansas that “the Legislature has very carefully and thoughtfully started to repair in spite of his vetoes.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who has served more than four decades in the Legislature, said Brownback “just dug himself so deep that he just kept digging. He never could bring himself to reach some sort of a compromise on really almost anything.”
Brownback would not say how long he was in talks with the Trump administration for the ambassador post, but he pushed back on the idea that his imminent exit may have distracted him during the legislative session.
“This was a busy session and a very difficult one and the Legislature on a couple of major issues came to different conclusions than I had. We fought through the session, fought through it aggressively, pointedly. And it ended up where it ended up,” Brownback said. “But no, I wasn’t distracted from this. There was a tough situation, and the Legislature decided to go a different direction.”
Asked about the biggest issues facing the state, Brownback said it was the decline of the family structure, an issue for which government doesn’t have an easy solution.
“The ones that we can address are often different from the biggest problems that the state faces,” Brownback said. “I think government is a limited-capacity entity. It’s not all powerful or all-seeing, and we don’t want it to be.”