By Jonathan Shorman
July 26, 2017
If Gov. Sam Brownback resigns his position to join the Department of State, he will leave behind a state where many now see his legacy more as a scar than a triumph.
He altered the state in numerous ways, large and small. On taxes, welfare, Medicaid, abortion and a host of other issues, he took Kansas in a sharply conservative direction.
He became a highly-divisive figure, drawing fire from both Democrats, moderate Republicans and some conservative Republicans as well. For much of his second term, polls ranked his popularity near the bottom of governors nationally.
Regardless of popularity, his effect is difficult to underestimate.
Kansas politics in large part now centers on Brownback. Candidates attempt to link their opponents to him, and lawmakers debate how far to go in attempting to undo his accomplishments.
The Legislature rolled back his signature 2012 tax cuts in early June, raising taxes in an effort to end a years-long cycle of revenue not matching expenses. Lawmakers said it was time to right the ship of state, and they passed a bill over Brownback’s veto to generate $1.2 billion in new revenue over two years.
Even some who initially embraced the 2012 policy – like Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who voted against the 2017 tax increases – say Brownback’s experiment failed.
She wishes the governor had been more engaged in helping fix the tax policy. Instead, it mostly ended up in the scrap heap.
“I don’t think the tax experiment in Kansas had to fail. I think it could have succeeded. We could have slowed it down, we could have made some minor adjustments and we could have made it work,” Wagle said.
“But along that line, you needed a governor to help make it work.”
Brownback maintains the gutting of his signature tax cuts is a mistake.
“A lot of people made it about me, but it’s not about me. It’s about Kansas,” Brownback said in June. “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?”
Much else of what Brownback did remains, however.
Tighter rules on receiving welfare benefits – such as food stamps and cash assistance – are still in place. The number of people on welfare in Kansas has dropped, which Brownback hails as a sign people are climbing out of poverty but others charge is simply the result of draconian restrictions.
Along with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, Brownback implemented a managed care system for Medicaid in Kansas. Called KanCare, the program has drawn federal scrutiny and criticism, and patient advocates regularly point to problems. But Brownback’s administration says it is, overall, delivering better care at lower costs.
Brownback successfully fought back Medicaid expansion, vetoing a bill to increase eligibility for the program – which provides health coverage to low-income and disabled individual – in the spring. An effort to override his veto fell short.
Whether the majority of his policy legacy is upheld by future governors and lawmakers or eventually replaced – like the 2012 tax policy – remains to be seen.
But Brownback’s imprint on his native state is sweeping and – regardless of whether you love it or hate it – unlikely to be forgotten soon.
“An important characteristic for Gov. Brownback was that he believed strongly in what he was doing and that it was working. He had an ironclad faith in his tax cuts and LLC tax exemption and defended them to the bitter end. He simply could not get himself to give up his signature policy,” Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka, said in an email.
“To some this is admirable tenacity and conviction; to others, including, ultimately the people (via opinion polls) and the Legislature, stubborn foolishness.”
Defined by 2012 tax cuts
No single issue came to define Brownback’s time in office more than taxes.
In 2012, lawmakers sent him an aggressive tax bill – more aggressive, actually, than Brownback had publicly asked for. It did not include provisions intended to offset anticipated revenue losses of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years.
Brownback decided to sign it.
“The best thing we can do for individuals in this state and particularly for somebody who is struggling is provide jobs and job opportunities,” Brownback said when he approved the bill in May 2012. “That’s what this does.”
The bill slashed personal income tax rates and took the state from three tax brackets to two. It also eliminated taxes on pass-through business income – income that flows from the business, often a limited liability company, to the owner.
On cable news, Brownback described the new policy as a “real live experiment” – a comment that would follow him for the rest of his time as governor.
In the wake of the new policy, he also helped oust a number of sitting Republican lawmakers in the primary election that August with more-conservative alternatives, making it easier for him to pass favorable policies.
The decision to help challenges of members of his own party initially helped him and the conservative wing of the party retain absolute power over the Capitol, said Beatty.
But later, the tactics alienated more-moderate Republicans as well as Democrats.
“I think the massacre of 2012 when he took out so many of those moderate Republicans is actually maybe his greatest legacy because by doing that, by taking out all of those moderates, he ensured his very radical, very extreme policies were going to get through,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.
Monthly revenue crashed in the spring of 2014, falling massively short of projections. Since then, the monthly revenue report has become a fixture of Kansas politics, with supporters and opponents of the tax policy battling over the significance of each month’s figures.
The tax cuts played a large role in the 2014 gubernatorial election, where Brownback faced off against Democrat Paul Davis. The issue wasn’t enough to carry Davis across the finish line, and Brownback returned for a second term in office, though he won less than 50 percent of the vote.
“By re-election time in 2014 he found himself still wielding great political power in Kansas but with an ever-widening gap between his policies and public opinion,” Beatty said.
Brownback initiated several rounds of cuts to state agencies amid continued revenue struggles. In 2015, the Legislature, after weeks of gridlock, increased sales taxes to raise more revenue.
Kansans soured on Brownback – multiple polls placed his approval ratings among the lowest in the country for a governor – and they soured on some of the lawmakers aligned with him.
A wave of moderate Republican candidates ousted several conservative representatives and senators in the August 2016 primary. Voters also voted in November to send additional Democrats to the Legislature.
The new Legislature that convened this year set about taking apart the 2012 tax cuts. One attempt in February was vetoed by Brownback, and the override fell just three votes short in the Senate.
It wouldn’t be until June that lawmakers would again pass a package of tax increases to raise about $1.2 billion over the next two years. Brownback again vetoed, but this time he was overridden.
Rep. Joy Koesten, R-Leawood, was among the new class of lawmakers. She said one of the biggest issue lawmakers are going to be grappling with for decades is what has been left behind by the governor’s tenure.
“I don’t think we truly know what that is yet,” Koesten said. “I think we’ve seen the surface damage, but I don’t know that we’ve seen the depth of the damage. And I think it’s going to take us a decade or more to figure that out and to fix it. So if that’s a legacy, I’m not sure that it’s a positive one.”
Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, said he thinks Brownback is a good person, though he “see’s the world a little different than some of the people in Kansas.”
He said overall, he’d give Brownback a “B rating,” for his time as governor.
“I think he’s done some good things,” Barker said. “He’s made some mistakes. You expect that in the executive branch. Not everyone knows everything. You can’t see the future.”
Divisive welfare changes
Brownback pushed through numerous changes to welfare programs that critics charged forced people off of assistance. Brownback and other Republicans argue his changes lifted people out of poverty.
“I think time will prove it was a wise thing to do and I would certainly hate to see that eroded now,” Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said.
In 2013, the Kansas Department for Children and Families began suspicion-based drug testing of welfare recipients. Some people saw that as harsh, but Brownback says it was sorely needed.
Then, in 2015, he signed a bill limiting the time people can spend on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to three years over a lifetime, with an exception for emergencies. The federal limit is five years. The law also requires adults to participate in job training or work at least 20 hours a week to keep their benefits after three months on the program.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families caseloads dropped. When Brownback took office in 2011, an average of 38,963 people per month received benefits. By 2015, the number had dropped to about 15,000.
In 2016, Brownback launched a mentoring program for welfare recipients. Administration officials mulled making participation mandatory, but ultimately opted against it.
Only 8.7 percent of the families who left the welfare program in Kansas in 2014 cited new employment as the primary reason, compared with 81 percent in neighboring Missouri, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2016.
In Kansas, 31.1 percent of families who left the program were sanctioned for failing to meet the state’s work requirements; 19.6 left because they had failed to meet another program requirement or reached the state’s time limit.
“Today’s poor kids are going to be Kansas’ poor adults. We’re not creating a trajectory for them to really change the outcomes in their life moving forward,” said Annie McKay, director of Kansas Action for Children, a group critical of the welfare policies.
Pushing conservative causes
On guns and abortion, Brownback took the state in a conservative direction – loosening restrictions on firearm possession while tightening restrictions on abortion.
“The right to bear arms is essential towards preserving our freedoms and maintaining self-government,” Brownback said in June.
He approved legislation that eliminated the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. And he signed a bill that opened up more public buildings to guns, including public colleges and universities and public hospitals.
In June, lawmakers did approve allowing public hospitals to continue to prohibit weapons, less than a month before their exemptions were set to expire. Brownback allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
On abortion, Brownback pursued increased scrutiny and regulation of the procedure. Some of the provisions have been bogged down in litigation.
In 2013, he signed a bill giving Kansas a new law to block tax breaks for abortion providers, ban sex-selection abortions and declare that life begins “at fertilization.”
Earlier this year he signed a bill that specifies abortion providers provide additional information — in 12-point, Times New Roman font — to women considering the procedure.
Brownback never vetoed an anti-abortion bill.
“The dignity of life and the inherent right to life is shared by all people, both born and unborn,” he has said. “The complexities surrounding countless crisis pregnancies are many and varied. Too often, women are led to believe that abortion is their only option when it clearly, clearly is not.”
As Brownback’s time as governor came to a close, even conservatives like Rep. John Whitmer, who were steadfast in their opposition to rolling back the governor’s tax cuts, found reasons to criticize the longtime Kansas Republican.
Though Whitmer, R-Wichita, said he felt Brownback had been in the right on abortion issues but couldn’t help but be disappointed on the governor’s decision to let a bill allowing public hospitals to continue banning concealed handguns to become law without his signature.
Brownback didn’t use his bully pulpit effectively to champion his agenda, Whitmer said.
“He’s been good on life,” Whitmer said. “And you know, in the long term, that’s what matters. Budget, taxes, you have another budget in two years. You don’t have other opportunities to defend life.”
But, Kelly said, the tax cuts “overwhelemed everything else because of the problems” they caused.
Still, his effect is undeniable.
“I think he’s put his mark on the state,” said Rep. Erin Davis, R-Olathe, “and even though he and I have not agreed on everything, he has remained true to what his core beliefs are.”