Gov. Sam Brownback will give up the governor’s mansion in Topeka to take a relatively obscure ambassadorship after seeing his power and popularity severely diminished in the last year.
The Kansas Legislature overrode Brownback’s veto to repeal his signature tax cuts a little more than a month before President Donald Trump selected him to serve as the next ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, a position based in Washington, D.C., where Brownback spent 16 years as a member of the U.S. House and Senate.
Brownback, who first won election in 2010 by a more than 30-point margin, transformed Kansas into a laboratory for tax cuts, welfare reform, privatized Medicaid and other conservative policy goals.
The policies sparked a backlash, and many of Brownback’s closest allies lost their seats in the Legislature in 2016 as Brownback became one of the least popular governors in the nation.
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House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said his first reaction to the announcement was “good riddance.”
“He’s left a lot of carnage and destruction, and he’s also put the incoming governor in a tough spot,” Ward said, noting that Kansas is awaiting a decision by the state’s Supreme Court on the fate of a new school finance formula.
The ambassadorship requires Senate confirmation, so Brownback’s departure date is not clear. Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon, will succeed Brownback.
“There is not an area of state government that’s not worse off because Sam Brownback served as governor,” Ward said.
Rep. Joy Koesten, a Leawood Republican who was one of a slew of moderate Republicans swept into office in an anti-Brownback wave last year, said that lawmakers are going to be grappling for decades with the impact of Brownback’s policies.
“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.”
Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said that while Brownback was controversial, he was a “very consequential governor.”
“He changed a lot of things,” Barker said. “He’ll leave a record of change for the state that most governors aren’t able to do. We’ll just have to see how those changes play out in the future.”
Barker said the White House’s announcement apparently took “everybody by surprise,” even the governor’s staff. He said a message from the White House’s political arm let them know that part of the reason they picked Brownback was to “raise the visibility” of the ambassadorship.
David Kensinger, Brownback’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, called Brownback the “gutsiest” candidate he ever worked for.
“I think the fullness of his accomplishments will stand the test of time. He did what so many have talked about but never tried,” Kensinger said. “He actually got in there and made significant, meaningful reforms that controlled the growth of government.”
Kensinger said the rollback of Brownback’s tax cuts would not diminish the conservative governor’s legacy, noting that rates will still be lower than when Brownback took office.
“He tried to do a lot of important things, and he got a lot of them done. Nobody bats 1,000,” Kensinger said.
Even with the rollback of the tax cuts, there are numerous laws enacted in the past six years to remind Kansans of Sam Brownback’s impact.
The state privatized its Medicaid system and enacted some of the strictest work requirements for welfare in the nation. 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.
Kansas adopted some of the loosest gun laws in the country, no longer requiring training for concealed carry and opening up public buildings and colleges to firearms.
Kansas became the first state in the nation to ban dilation and evacuation abortions, a common type of abortion in the second trimester. The law remains subject to court injunction and cannot currently be enforced.
But the tax cuts, which Brownback promised would act as “a shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy, remain the policy that Brownback will be most closely associated with, according to Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.
“With those giant tax cuts, Brownback may go down in history as the state’s biggest gambler: Brownback gambled that supply-side economics would work and that the tax cuts would be so successful as to bring a windfall of money to the state, no matter what,” Beatty said in an email.
“He also gambled — or at least hoped — that if the Kansas budget did fall into trouble, the legislature and people of Kansas would keep cutting the budget and wait for the inevitable economic boom that he said would come from the tax cuts,” Beatty said. “He lost that gamble: Whatever new jobs and revenue the tax cuts might have brought were dwarfed by the loss of revenue to the state and by decreasing revenues in other areas, and the budget mess that ensued was disastrous.”
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.”
Other Brownback allies also voiced disappointment in Brownback’s final year in office.
“There’s been a lack of leadership, and I think that’s what we saw this session,” said Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican and outspoken opponent to rolling back the governor’s tax cuts.
The Wichita Republican said that Brownback didn’t use his bully pulpit effectively to champion his agenda, saying that he “wished he’d fought more.”
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a conservative Republican from Wichita, said he felt some of the governor’s policy accomplishments have failed to get recognition because of the tax cuts.
“The tax policy kind of overshadowed virtually all of the rest of his legacy,” Hawkins said. “It really put a shadow over it.”
Hawkins told The Star last month that Brownback had told a small group of GOP lawmakers that it would be politically better for him if they overrode his veto.
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said under Brownback, “the last seven years have been anything but successful.
“I think that the governor charted his course the first few days or months of his administration, and I think his downfall was that he was unwilling to veer from that course no matter what the results were,” Wolfe Moore said. “... He seemed unwilling to change that course, no matter how badly it affected the state of Kansas.”
The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.