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Brownback’s legislative priorities in peril

Joseph A. Aistrup

By A Contributor

Leadership and timing are everything in politics. These two factors have much to do with what appears to be a legislative session on the brink of failure for Gov. Sam Brownback.

Brownback came into the session with a long list of conservative initiatives. He proposed to gradually eliminate the Kansas income tax by cutting deductions and flattening the rate structure; revise the funding formula for school districts and place the responsibility for future budgetary increases on local school boards; reform KPERS from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system; contract out the Medicaid delivery system; and just for good measure, create a new arts agency to replace the Kansas Arts Commission, which the governor killed last year.

Anyone who hangs around a legislature can tell you that election years are notoriously bad for getting anything done, even if there is broad agreement on what needs to be done. In 2012, all legislative seats are up for election. Quite naturally, lawmakers who seek re-election tend to be risk averse, trying to avoid giving cannon fodder to potential primary or general election challengers.

Throw on top of this the once-a-decade distraction of redistricting all of the state legislative district boundaries. After redistricting, a sizable portion of many Kansas House and Senate districts will be composed of constituents who are unfamiliar with the person who has just become their legislator. Talk about insecurity.  

Perhaps these timing issues could be overcome with astute political leadership by the governor. However, the most surprising element of this story is the large number of unforced errors committed on the part of his administration. These go back to last year, when Brownback vetoed funding for the Kansas Arts Commission, a decision that led to three months of bad press. The administration seemed to be caught flat-footed, surprised that the National Endowment for the Arts would end its support for the arts in Kansas too.

Then the governor’s communications director slapped down a high school student for her harmless Twitter comments about the governor. Normally, such stories would be long forgotten, but they remain in our collective conscious if they become harbingers of other equally clumsy moves.

Last fall, allies of the governor started recruiting conservative primary challengers to moderate Republican senators, including the Senate president and majority leader. Even if this is a Machiavellian move designed to gain conservative control of the Senate in addition to the House, the administration seems to have miscalculated the extent to which moderates would exhibit political backbone and jeopardize Brownback’s legislative initiatives.

The clumsiness continued this spring. Brownback’s State of the State speech included inaccurate budget information, and embedded in his tax-cut proposal was the obvious non-starter of eliminating the home mortgage interest deduction. The Kansas Realtors Association bought full-page ads in newspapers across the state attacking this proposal.   

Then the governor decided to host a series of legislative dinners for Republican lawmakers that, at the very least, skirted the edge of violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Even though nothing inappropriate may have occurred, the administration ignored the importance of the appearance of propriety.

Sprinkled between these events have been a variety of issues with various administration appointees to state agencies (IT, SRS, and the Juvenile Justice Authority), all of which have only served to irritate legislators or bring more negative headlines.

As of late, the governor’s chief of staff awkwardly inserted himself into the Senate redistricting debate, insisting that Leavenworth County should have its own state Senate district. This has the outward appearance of petty retribution against Leavenworth’s two state senators — Tom Holland and Kelley Kultala — who ran, very unsuccessfully, against Brownback as the Democratic nominees for governor and lieutenant governor.  

For a seasoned politico like Sam Brownback, we should and do have high expectations. We don’t expect this cacophony of errors.   

As Burdett Loomis has noted, perhaps the U.S. Senate is not a good training ground for the job of governor. Whatever it is, the governor and his administration need to get their act together. Otherwise, his legislative agenda will not be the only aspect of his administration that is on the brink of failure.

Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of political science at Kansas State University.

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