Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Is Gov. Sam Brownback leaving Kansas for Rome? Not so fast

If Gov. Sam Brownback were leaving Kansas right away, he might be paying less attention to plugging the $1 billion budget deficit, writes Steve Rose.
If Gov. Sam Brownback were leaving Kansas right away, he might be paying less attention to plugging the $1 billion budget deficit, writes Steve Rose. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Reports swirled a few weeks ago that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was headed for Rome, abbreviating his second term. He would be appointed by President Donald Trump, so the story went, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture.

Where the storyline went awry was the speculation that Brownback would bolt immediately. It was presumed the governor would want to get the heck out of Dodge before the legislative session ends.

That always seemed like bad timing for Brownback to leave. It would appear that he didn’t much care what happened to Kansas, despite the mess it’s in. He would be portrayed as a coward, not willing to make the tough decisions. And the publicity-sensitive governor would be robbed of the opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory.

The smart money in the Legislature is that Brownback is almost out the door, but not quite. He will finish up this session, which should be over by mid-May. As one legislative leader put it, “You won’t see the governor here by June.”

There are a couple other conspicuous clues that Brownback is not quite done.

Strange things are happening in the office of Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, the man who would be elevated to fill Brownback’s shoes. His office is quietly expanding. The lieutenant governor has added a couple key individuals who are raising the visibility of the usually low-profile Colyer. With the exception of his personal push for KanCare, the privatized Medicaid program to serve the health needs of the poor in Kansas, Colyer’s name hardly ever came up in the past.

An even more obvious clue that Brownback is here to finish out the session: If he were leaving right away, he might be paying less attention to plugging the $1 billion deficit that looms over the state through June 2018. A man on his way out the door would probably not be so active in coming up with a solution.

But behind the scenes, Brownback is working hard, pushing the Legislature to pass a flat tax.

Perhaps this could be a way to save face by not raising income taxes, which he vetoed. It also camouflages the obvious failure by Brownback to ignite the Kansas economy by slashing income taxes in 2012. A flat, across-the-board tax almost changes the subject and leaves behind a confusing legacy. Did he win or lose in his tax fight?

Already, legislative leaders are running the numbers on the flat tax. They are dutifully trying to please the governor so he will sign something, while gathering enough votes to pass the Legislature. It will not be an easy task, given Brownback’s unpopularity with most lawmakers.

It is too early in the game to make any projections on the flat tax, but preliminary estimates show that a 5 percent flat tax would raise enough to offset the deficit and perhaps would leave enough to exempt the sales tax on food, which is the highest in the nation.

But what happens to lower-income Kansans? The lowest bracket is now 2.7 percent. That could be solved by raising the standard deduction from $7,500 to as much as $20,000. The bottom line is: Lower-income Kansans would not pay more in taxes.

We shall see if the flat tax can be sold to a majority of legislators in both branches and if the numbers are palatable to Kansans.

In the meantime, Brownback needs to stick around to sign another vital piece of legislation. The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that schools need more money in order to be “adequately funded” and has ordered the state to come up with a new formula for distributing those funds.

Brownback must approve that landmark legislation to be able to say he didn’t retreat in the middle of the night.

Of course, anything is possible. Brownback might flee early, and this reasoning would be out the window. But I suspect not. The man’s reputation is at stake.

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