Melinda Henneberger

Brownback’s last State of the State infuriates Republicans, confuses Democrats

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback walks into the House chamber to deliver his last State of the State speech.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback walks into the House chamber to deliver his last State of the State speech. The Star

Gov. Sam Brownback’s last State of the State was a maudlin riff on what really matters in this crazy old world — “friends for the journey,’’ “friends closer than a brother riding with me at a full gallop across the prairie,’’ and “a staff so loyal they’ve gladly taken the slings and arrows cast my way.”

It was completely at odds, in other words, with Brownback’s own nearly friendless state in his state’s Legislature.

It was at odds with how bloodlessly he’s governed, slashing taxes and then refusing to ever acknowledge the damage done.

It was at odds with how he’s been behaving, putting his own interests ahead of his state’s by leaving Kansas in limbo while he waited to be confirmed for an ambassadorship.

And on a personal level, it was at odds with the me-me-me-first way he just wrestled back control from his long-patient lieutenant governor, Jeff Colyer, after the ambassadorship still hadn’t come through by the end of the year.

Most of all, though, the soft focus of his address was at odds with the fury he had to know it would provoke from his fellow Republicans.

Because the nut of the speech, buried in all the sentimental talk about sunsets and “the earthly worries that so easily distract us” was that he now thinks Kansas should spend $600 million more on its struggling schools over the next five years — but should accomplish that without raising taxes.

They should spend more, yes, and have been ordered to by the Kansas Supreme Court.

But this was such a complete reversal, even if it was undergirded by nothing, that Democrats were smiling but confused: “I’m not sure why he said that,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, of Kansas City, Kan.

Republicans were certainly in no mood to gallop with him across the plains, or anywhere else.

On his way out the door, the proposal came across like a passive-aggressive poke in the eye wrapped in a heartbroken meditation on relationships lost. And oh, they are lost.

“He’s giving everybody a sense of false hope that he’s just solved the school issue,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, “when he’s made it a hell of a lot worse.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who at one point really was a close friend of the governor’s, called his proposal “one we can’t afford without a major tax increase next year.”

His deathbed conversion on schools, after the way he’s fought to the death against raising taxes, she said tartly, was “very disingenuous of him.”

Brownback himself gave himself high marks, though, and in the hallway afterwards said it was the speech he’d always wanted to give, about “the hopes and dreams” he’s always had.

As he said in his speech, “life is fleeting.” But despite its half-dozen references to God, there has been so little grace in his exit from Kansas politics that he may find that grudges can last.