Government & Politics

At inauguration, Brownback warns of ‘crisis of the family,’ big government

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was sworn in by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss on Monday during the inaugural ceremony in Topeka.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was sworn in by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss on Monday during the inaugural ceremony in Topeka. AP

Gov. Sam Brownback highlighted what he called “the crisis of the family” Monday as he took the oath of office for his second term as governor before a packed chamber in the Kansas House.

He contended that the biggest challenges facing the state are cultural and moral.

But he also acknowledged that many people in Kansas are struggling economically, which he blamed on “big government.”

“There have been difficulties,” he said. “Too many people have not progressed in recent years, in many cases held back by an economy that is growing too slowly or an overly paternalistic big government.”

Brownback began his second term as the state faces a projected $648 million deficit for the 2016 fiscal year. His chief of staff has said the governor will increase tax revenue and cut spending to address the deficit. Brownback will unveil his budget proposal on Friday, the day after he delivers his State of the State address.

Monday, he focused on family values and social issues, such as abortion.

“If we are honest, we have to admit there is a crisis of the family in our country. In my view this is a principal issue that must be addressed for us to move forward,” Brownback said.

“That starts by recognizing that everybody is a beautiful somebody. Our culture is at its best when we protect and encourage the weakest,” he said. “Every life, at every stage, in every place has a dignity beyond our imagining. Every human — especially the most vulnerable, the unborn, the infirm, those ravaged by age and those desperate in despair — should be protected in law, loved, and told repeatedly of their incredible beauty and worth.”

Brownback pointed to the example set by his parents, Bob and Nancy, who he said were part of “the sacrificial generation,” and said that the renewal of the nation depended upon strengthening the family structure.

The speech at times had the tone of a sermon. Brownback said the state’s seal, which includes the image of a farmer tilling a field as Native Americans hunt buffalo before a rising sun, provided a guide of how to deal with modern-day challenges.

“The seal visually shows us the path forward. It is one of work as a farmer, of heart as a pioneer, of a Native American hunter’s courage. It is a warm and healthy family as shown by the home,” Brownback said. “And shining down on all of us, the glory of God.”

The speech’s focus on social issues drew sharp reactions.

“That’s all that counts is family, strengthening families. And then that’ll take care of the economy and all the social challenges, won’t it?” said Dave DePue, director of the Capitol Commission, a faith-based organization, who prays with Brownback regularly.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, also appreciated the governor’s remarks.

“It was compelling. As a matter of fact, I thought it addressed the areas, you know, that we need to be focused on as a state,” Suellentrop said. “We need to maintain the effort to support the family as the best system to make sure that everybody’s got an opportunity.”

Democrats were less impressed with the governor’s comments.

Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, pointed out that while the governor spoke of helping the infirm, he has opposed expanding Medicaid, and while he talked about the need to address poverty, his actions haven’t always reflected that.

“I wanted to say, ‘Governor, do you realize that 348,000 Kansas are uninsured today? Between 100,000 and 150,000 of them could have insurance if we expand Medicaid?’” Ward said. “‘Governor, do you realize that one in five children are in poverty right now under your watch and you have cut services that provide food to hungry children?’ That would help families in Kansas. I mean there are a number of things you can do to help families in Kansas.”

Joan Wagnon, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, said the governor’s call for strong families doesn’t extend to all families, such as those made up of same-sex couples.

“He says, ‘We have to admit there is a crisis of the family in our country,’ yet he defines family in such ways as to exclude same-sex families and single-parent families,” Wagnon said in an emailed statement.

The inauguration, initially scheduled to take place outside the Capitol, was moved indoors because of freezing wind chills.

House Speaker Ray Merrick said he thought the ceremony reflected the state’s culture and heritage. It featured a reading of a cowboy poem by Ron Wilson, the state’s self-described “Poet Lariat,” a pun on the word “laureate” and the type of rope used to make a lasso. It also included a rendition of “Home on the Range,” the official state song, performed by the Thomas More Prep-Marian High School Choir from Hays.

The inauguration comes as a federal grand jury investigates Brownback’s campaign finances. Carol Williams, the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, is scheduled to testify Wednesday about loans made to the campaign. The only loans the campaign received were from Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.

The governor’s office has called the investigation without merit.

“We have followed all rules and regulations in making loans. Making loans to campaigns is a common thing to happen. We followed all rules and regulations and we think that that’s what will be borne out,” Brownback said. “This happens all the time. … How many campaigns have you seen loan money?”

Loaning money to a campaign is common. Colyer made his loan of $500,000 to the campaign three times. He first loaned the money on Dec. 31, 2013, and was repaid Jan. 2, 2014. He made the loan again on July 23 and again was repaid two days later.

He made the loan once more on Aug. 13, and the money stayed in the campaign’s coffers through the election. The most recent campaign finance report, which covers up to Dec. 31, shows he has since been repaid $400,000.

Brownback and the first lady also loaned the campaign $200,000.

Monday also marked the start of the 2015 legislative session with newly elected legislators sworn in later that afternoon. It is the first time since 1966 that Kansas has not had at least one woman in a statewide elected office as Republican Ken Selzer replaced Sandy Praeger as insurance commissioner.

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