Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s old friend, Vice President Mike Pence, cast two tie-breaking votes Wednesday to give the Kansas Republican a ticket back to Washington after a year of strife in Topeka.
Six months after he was first nominated, the U.S. Senate voted 50-49 to confirm Brownback as ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, ending a period of uncertainty in Topeka about who was holding the reins of state government.
“I’m glad to have the vice president in my corner,” Brownback told reporters seconds after Pence broke the tie on the initial vote.
A few hours later, Pence again arrived to rescue Brownback’s nomination from the opposition of Senate Democrats and the absence of two Republicans.
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Brownback’s elevation to ambassador comes after a period of tension with Kansas lawmakers that saw members of his own party repeatedly chastise him and the GOP-controlled Legislature eventually override his veto to repeal his signature tax cuts last year.
The governor pointed to the adoption of similar policies at the federal level as vindication.
“We opened up a new area of tax policy, I think, on small businesses… and they did it. I think you’re going to see a new welfare reform along the lines of what Kansas did. That will be a national policy,” Brownback said.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County surgeon, will officially succeed Brownback after performing many of the governor’s key duties in recent months, including selecting Cabinet appointees and playing a major role in crafting the governor’s budget proposal. Colyer’s spokesman could not say Wednesday evening how quickly he would take the oath of office.
Colyer, who has been preparing to take over since Brownback was first nominated in July, hinted at his efforts to repair the strained relationship between the Legislature and the governor’s office.
“We want Kansans to know that they’re going to have somebody who is going to listen to them. ... I’ll be working very closely with the Legislature and a lot of folks. You’ll just see a lot of energy and a little different approach,” Colyer said.
Brownback’s nomination faced strong Democratic opposition to his nomination over his record on gay rights.
Indeed, not a single Democrat crossed the aisle to support Brownback, who once was seen as a rising Republican star and possible presidential candidate. Even senators who had served with Brownback for years in Congress voted no, including Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri also voted no.
“I just think that it’s really important if you’re going to be the ambassador trying to promote tolerance that you show that kind of attitude, and his difficulty with the question about using religion as an excuse to persecute or prosecute people who are gay, that was a disqualifier,” McCaskill said.
During the tense vote on the Senate floor, Schumer could be heard saying to Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, “C’mon, this guy screwed up your state.” Moran crossed his arms and stepped away.
After the final confirmation vote Wednesday evening, a visibly subdued Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas couldn’t say why no Democrat would vote for Brownback, a one-time member of their exclusive club.
“You’ll have to ask them,” Roberts said. “You know, it used to be that when a member of the Senate was a nominee that people would put partisan politics aside or disagreements aside and vote for him. And that’s just not the case today.”
Brownback sweated the results of the initial vote during a meeting of the State Finance Council as other members on the council watched the vote unfold on C-Span on an iPhone.
In his new role, Brownback will oversee the country’s advocacy for religious minorities in areas of religious conflict and oppression around the globe. The position, which is based in Washington, D.C., was established in 1998.
“It’s a good role for Gov. Brownback,” said state Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican and one of Brownback’s closest allies. “I mean, that’s really where his passion is, is religious freedom.”
Tax cuts mark legacy
Brownback’s return to Washington, where he spent 16 years as a member of the U.S. House and Senate, comes after a year in which the governor saw his power diminished and his signature policy — his 2012 tax cuts — repealed by the Legislature.
“That was a defeat, no doubt,” said David Kensinger, Brownback’s former chief of staff and closest confidant. “And nobody likes to lose, but income tax rates are still lower than when he first came into office.”
Despite the end of the tax cuts, many of the policies Brownback championed during his time in office remain on the books and will have long-lasting effects.
Kansas became the first state to fully privatize Medicaid, handing over control of the state’s $3 billion health care program for low-income and disabled Kansans to three private insurance companies in 2012. The move has saved the state money, but many health care advocates have complained about a negative impact on care.
Brownback restricted welfare eligibility as governor, and the number of people on assistance dropped significantly. When Brownback took office in 2011, an average of 38,963 people per month received benefits. By 2015, the number had dropped to about 15,000.
“We’ve tripled the number of people getting out of poverty that were on public assistance,” Brownback said.
But whether individuals are actually better off is disputed. Brownback maintains the changes help pull people out of poverty, but critics charge it really just cuts the safety net.
Paul Davis, a Democrat who ran against Brownback in 2014, said last month that historians will look disapprovingly on Brownback’s time as a governor in large part because of the tax cuts.
“He’s had a long, distinguished career in public service and obviously that career is going to continue, but I think his time as governor is not going to be looked upon very favorably,” said Davis, who is running for Congress in Kansas’ 2nd District.
“The Brownback experiment is really known nationwide and I think it’s going to continue to be held up as an example of what states shouldn’t do and what the federal government shouldn’t do in terms of tax policy.”
Even many members of his own party give him failing marks.
“I think he has been the worst governor ever in Kansas in my lifetime,” said state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican. “The state is on the precipice of collapse, all of its infrastructure, every single place you look.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, called Brownback a revolutionary gambler.
“No question about it. He made the choice to stake his legacy on that signature policy and he would not back down from it. And as we know, it drove the Legislature and some people in his party crazy for the last couple years,” he said. “Politically, he sort of died with it.”
Brownback’s stubbornness on the issue eventually alienated close allies.
“I think it would have been better for him if he would have been willing to tweak his tax plan,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. “... He was unwilling to make any adjustments to it at all even in the face of not being able to pay the bills that he wanted us to pay.”
Wagle said Brownback had a tendency to spend more than the state could afford. “I think he genuinely thought the economy would turn around … and it didn’t,” she said.
Brownback said Wednesday evening that being governor was “the hardest job I’ve ever had.”
Jobs, education, abortion
Criticism in Topeka has not dented Brownback’s confidence in his conservative policies.
“When I ran, I ran on five measurables. I said, private sector job creation, personal income levels, fourth-grade reading, career college readiness and reduction in childhood poverty,” Brownback said in December. “Of those five, four of them have improved substantially, and one’s flat, fourth-grade reading.”
Kansas did gain overall jobs during Brownback’s tenure, but the data undercut his claim that his policies significantly accelerated job growth.
From January 2013, the month the tax cuts went into effect, through January 2017, Kansas’ job growth was 4.2 percent, compared with Nebraska’s 5.2 percent and Missouri’s 8 percent, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
“He’s caused a lot of damage to the state of Kansas. I don’t think he should be leaving the state of Kansas with the mess that he’s created,” said Robert Choromanski, director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
One of the most pressing challenges facing Colyer will be the issue of school finance after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding schools.
Brownback said in December that he hopes it is “remembered that we put more money in K-12 education, not less. I increased K-12 funding during the period of time I was governor and that’s something that I don’t think (we) got much coverage for, but that’s the truth. That’s what happened.”
The governor failed to mention that the increases to education funding during his tenure were primarily the result of court orders and that his administration repeatedly backed school funding bills later found insufficient by the court.
Brownback’s time in office also has been marked by his outspoken opposition to abortion.
“We’ve had 17,000 fewer abortions in the state of Kansas during the seven years I’ve been governor than the prior,” he said.
Kansas became the first state in the country to outlaw dilation and evacuation abortions, a common form of abortion done in the second trimester. The law has been halted from going into effect as part of a still-pending court case.
He once signed a bill blocking tax breaks for abortion providers, banning sex-selective abortions and declaring that life begins “at fertilization.”
Brownback pointed to the abortion restrictions he signed into law during his seven years as his most significant legacy, contending that his policies had lowered the state’s abortion rate, a claim that Planned Parenthood disputes.
Planned Parenthood said Brownback “attacked women’s access to safe, legal abortion to distract from his failed leadership.”
“His legacy of financially crippling the state, eliminating critical protections for LGBTQ+ public employees, and vetoing a bi-partisan measure to expand Medicaid is shameful,” Aaron Samulcek, interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said in a statement.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican seeking the governor’s office in 2018, pointed to the work Brownback did as a member of the U.S. Senate to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur in the 2000s.
“I will always remember him for his passion and devotion to protecting the cause of religious freedom and for standing up for those who did not have a voice,” he said in an email.