After all these years, Steve Morris can’t recall precisely what Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said to him when the two struck a deal on what would become the largest tax cut in state history.
But the former president of the Kansas Senate, a Republican, still insists on one basic point: Brownback lied to him.
Morris, one of the few true gentleman lawmakers I’ve known, doesn’t use the word “lie.” His choice of terms is “underhanded.” But the point is the same: The governor promised that the ridiculously outsized tax cut that Morris and the Senate approved in 2012 would be modified before Brownback signed it.
Brownback doesn’t recall it that way. But it’s hard to imagine any other reason why Morris, a moderate, would sign off on such a huge cut absent that promise. Other lawmakers recall talking to Morris at the time about Brownback’s pledge.
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This week, Brownback got his comeuppance. Lawmakers undid those cuts with a humiliating override of a Brownback veto. This was a rejection of the signature initiative of Brownback’s nearly two terms in office. Lots of Republicans supported that rejection.
Political defeats don’t come larger than this.
The decisive moment that led to those absurdly huge cuts came in March 2012. When the Senate initially rejected the tax-cut bill, Brownback speed-dialed Morris and urged him to give the legislation another shot.
“He pleaded and pleaded and pleaded,” Morris said Wednesday.
He said Brownback told him something like this: “I know we can’t do this. It would bankrupt the state. It’s terrible public policy.”
Brownback also told Morris he’d see to it that lawmakers reduced the size of the cut in a conference committee.
A farmer from Hugoton, Morris came to the aid of the governor from his own party. In a second vote, the Senate passed the legislation.
But instead of trimming the size of the cut, the conservative House endorsed the Senate bill, astonishing many. Brownback then signed the measure.
The governor may have duped Morris, but the Senate president and many Democrats and moderate Republicans knew exactly what kind of financial hardship would ensue.
The bill cut an unholy $3.7 billion over five years. Yet Brownback promised that the cuts would be a booster shot to a moribund state economy.
Five years later, we know none of that is true. What is true is that the state suffered and mortgaged a chuck of its future to pay for those ill-conceived tax cuts.
Morris won’t say, “I told you so.” That’s not who he is.
What Morris does say is that each day, he has to steady himself to avoid becoming angry all over again about what went down and his role in it. He worked for 20 years in the Senate to improve state government, only to see Brownback’s tax bill wipe all that progress out.
He was naive to trust the governor, he said. In the years since, Brownback proved too stubborn to adjust his tax policy, “motivated more by his own ego than any thoughts about the state,” Morris said.
Now, though, it’s all history. The state known as “Bleeding Kansas” during the Civil War can heal. “Maybe now,” Morris said, “we can get the bleeding stopped.”