When Democrat Laura Kelly becomes the governor of Kansas on Monday, she will end eight years of unified Republican control of the state — an era marked by fights over taxes, welfare and Medicaid.
Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer changed Kansas in significant ways, moving the state in a conservative direction with laws and policies that affected hundreds of thousands of lives.
They cut income taxes, sparking a years-long fight that eventually resulted in the cuts being largely reversed. They privatized Medicaid, which provides health coverage to more than 400,000 Kansans. And they changed welfare and passed anti-abortion legislation.
But Republicans under Brownback and Colyer failed to achieve some of their most ambitious goals, including changing how justices are selected for the Kansas Supreme Court and amending the state constitution review of school funding.
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“What Brownback and the conservatives wanted to do was make Kansas a shining light of conservatism in America,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University and longtime observer of Kansas politics.
Brownback has said that Kansas saw progress during his time as governor, improving in the areas he focused on during his campaigns.
“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 2017. “Of those five, four of them have improved substantially, and one’s flat, fourth-grade reading.”
Colyer said during an interview that he was able to change the tone in the governor’s office during his year as governor. The budget will include a $900 million surplus this year, more Kansans are working than ever before and the state’s credit outlook has improved, he said.
“I think most Kansans will see that we walked into a very difficult situation and that we’ve been successful,” Colyer said.
When Democrats and other critics look back at the last eight years, they see the scars from Brownback’s tax experiment, however.
“The major legacy of the last eight years is that tax cuts for the rich to stimulate the economy do not work. And that starving the so-called beast of government results in the citizens failing to receive the services they deserve from their government,” Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said.
A battle over taxes
Brownback’s decision in 2012 to sign legislation cutting income taxes set Kansas on a path that ended in a June 2017 showdown between Brownback and lawmakers over rolling back the policy. Lawmakers prevailed.
The bill cut tax rates. It also eliminated taxes for thousands of businesses — a move that came to be derided as unfair and costly. Brownback hailed the law as an experiment, but by 2014 Kansas was beginning to miss revenue projections, triggering years of budget cuts as the state repeatedly collected less tax revenue than expected.
Opposition to the tax policy started to build, and by 2016 moderate Republicans swept out a number of conservative lawmakers who supported the policy. Democrats also picked up seats, setting the stage for its reversal less than a year later.
Brownback said that repealing the tax policy represented a “step backwards” for Kansas.
“A lot of people made it about me, but it’s not about me. It’s about Kansas,” he said the day after the tax cuts were largely repealed. “It’s about the future. It’s about which way we want to go. Do we want to be a high-tax, slow-growth or no-growth state, or a pro-growth state?”
But for numerous lawmakers and others, the Brownback experiment became a cautionary tale.
“I think it is good to try bold things but it is very important to remain open to whether that bold thing is working or whether there is some adjustment that has to be made along the way,” said Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican who chairs the House Tax Committee.
Colyer largely sidestepped the issue during his time as governor, even though he had been Brownback’s lieutenant governor throughout the tax fight. Colyer became governor in January 2018 after Brownback resigned to take a diplomatic post in Washington, D.C.
“What’s happened has happened,” Colyer would say of the tax fight.
Since the reversal of the tax cuts, revenue collections have improved. The state is now projected to end the fiscal year with a balance of more than $900 million. The financial health of state government is a point of pride for Colyer as he prepares to leave office.
In his final days in office, Colyer has inched closer to defending the tax policy.
“I think it was important to return money to the people and to do that. Money in people’s pockets, particularly in the middle of a recession, was particularly important,” Colyer told the KCUR program Up To Date on Wednesday.
Welfare, Medicaid changes
Although Brownback’s tax policy was reversed, an array of other policies remain in place.
Brownback, along with Republican lawmakers, lowered lifetime limits on welfare benefits and increased work requirements. Supporters said the changes would spur individuals to seek jobs but opponents said it was a way to kick people off welfare.
Brownback also privatized the state’s Medicaid program. In a shift spearheaded by Colyer, Kansas handed over the operation of Medicaid to managed care companies.
The change brought years of complaints from recipients, but the administration says the move improved program efficiency.
“I think one thing that Gov. Brownback did us a great service on was reforming Medicaid and making sure we tried to help individuals in need to become self-sufficient again,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said.
Brownback and Colyer both opposed efforts to expand Medicaid, which would offer health coverage to thousands of Kansans. Lawmakers approved expansion in 2017, but were not able to overcome a veto from Brownback. Kelly has named Medicaid expansion one of her top priorities.
In addition, Brownback and Colyer also signed a number of anti-abortion measures into law. Some have been challenged in court, including a measure intended to ban telemedicine abortions and another that places additional requirements on abortion clinics.
Colyer signed a massive school funding increase into law in an effort to draw to a close a years-long lawsuit over funding. The bill ramps up funding by $525 million a year over five years.
And although some Republicans have opposed increased funding, Colyer prided himself on signing the legislation. Still, the Kansas Supreme Court said the bill didn’t account for inflation. Changing the bill could require upwards of $90 million a year, and lawmakers are expected to tackle the issue this year.
Child welfare remains an issue
Critics of the Brownback and Colyer administrations point to problems that continue to face Kansas. Perhaps chief among them: the state’s foster care system.
Under Brownback, the foster care system showed signs of significant strain as the number of children going into foster care climbed. Reports of children sleeping in contractor offices, missing foster children, and allegations that gay and lesbian foster parents faced discrimination all rocked the system.
Several high-profile child deaths also drew public scrutiny.
“I think that they will always be remembered for the damage that was done toward DCF” and other programs, said Chris Reeves, the Kansas Democratic national committeeman.
“Everybody looks for this legacy of the positive things they did, but there’s not a lot that people are going to remember out of Brownback and Colyer,” he said.
Colyer made improving the Department for Children and Families, which oversees the system, a central focus. He announced a new agency secretary, Gina Meier-Hummel, and promised increased transparency.
“We’ve been much more transparent and I think that transparency is so important so we can really deal with it. And you’re starting to see results,” Colyer said during a December interview.
He says progress has been made even as DCF has come under growing criticism for its decision to change how it works with foster care and family preservation providers. A decision to change from awarding contracts to instead awarding grants has proved controversial within child welfare circles.
Kelly said she will halt the grants, calling them effectively no-bid contracts, and she has announced a new leader for the agency.
Despite partisan battles, the past eight years did bring some bipartisan accomplishments, too.
Lawmakers overhauled the state’s pension system, which was in poor shape just a few years ago following the Great Recession. The system, called KPERS, is in much better financial condition today.
Brownback also focused throughout his time as governor on water policy, including the development of a 50-year vision for conserving the state’s water resources.
Still, Brownback departed office a deeply unpopular governor. A Morning Consult poll taken in the final weeks of his time in office found Brownback had a 24 percent approval rating, while 64 percent disapproved.
Colyer has fared better, with 37 percent approval and 32 percent disapproval, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
But Colyer was unable to convince Republican voters to nominate him for governor in August, losing the primary against Secretary of State Kris Kobach by just 343 votes. Colyer chose not to pursue a recount, and he has said the decision was the right one.
Kobach campaigned on effectively reviving Brownback’s tax cuts (though he also promised reduced spending), but lost to Kelly by several percentage points.
Long-term impact uncertain
Going forward, will the Brownback-Colyer era have a long-term political effect in Kansas? It depends, according to Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
The intense negativity felt toward Brownback won’t wear away over night, he said. But whether the Brownback era continues to hang over Kansas depends in part on how his policy legacy holds up.
“If you see a Republican Legislature doubling down on defending Brownback policies that have been so negatively perceived – if that becomes the narrative of the next two years, then it might be something that helps Democrats politically two years from now,” Miller said.
“But if in 2020 and 2022 we’re instead talking about Kelly having policies of her own that are new and distinct and how much they’ve succeeded or failed or we’re on to some other hot topic – then I think Brownback can be forgotten in that sense.”