Governing Kansas a balancing act for Sam Brownback

The day before the general election, Sam Brownback stopped for a quick sandwich at an Arby’s on the west side of the Kansas capital city, getting a little food for thought.

As he finished his meal, an older gentleman stopped to speak to the Republican U.S. senator and offer his two-bits about what lies ahead.

“He said, ‘be a good governor’,” Brownback recalled.

The message is sticking with Brownback as he prepares to leave the confines of Washington for the Topeka Statehouse. He’s assembling a team of experienced administrators and former legislators to lay the foundation for what it takes to be that “good governor.”

“We recognize that these offices are a trusteeship. We don’t own them. The people of Kansas own these offices,” he said last week in rolling out his transition team.

The first tasks are forming a Cabinet, naming key office staff and converting his campaign roadmap into concrete policy proposals. He met Tuesday with legislative leaders to discuss the transition to office. He promised “an open dialogue” with Republicans and Democrats.

All the while, Brownback will have to be mindful of the Kansas budget and the projected revenue shortfall of $500 million for the fiscal year and 100,000 people looking for work.

“This is going to require significant addressing of the problems and I want to get the best minds as we can as quickly as we can,” he said.

Then there is the challenge of managing expectations among Republicans who are looking for a sea change in attitude from the governor’s office after eight years of Democratic control under then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and now Mark Parkinson.

Unlike Govs. John Anderson in the 1960s and Bill Graves in the 1990s, Brownback isn’t coming into power with a moderate reputation, a key difference as he prepares to lead with solid Republican majorities in the Legislature, said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty.

“But his early statements are more conciliatory than, ‘We just won, let’s charge the ramparts.’ He’s using words like we don’t want to overreach. That’s an early indication that he may surprise people,” said Beatty, who has studied the administrations of the past seven governors.

Graves, who now is CEO of the American Trucking Associations in Arlington, Va., said Brownback is “well ahead of the curve” in setting up shop because of his experience as state agriculture secretary and interactions for the past 16 years with agencies as a member of Congress. That also will help in choosing a Cabinet and key staff.

“I’m not sure that you ever get it right. Everyone’s got their opinions,” Graves said.

Beatty said there are several models for Brownback to follow, including Anderson, who would invite members of both parties to his office for lunch to work out key legislation.

Brownback campaigned on taking a long view of Kansas government and the economy, vowing to make fundamental changes in education, spending and job creation. Those goals could temper any rush to enact social policy, Beatty said, such as restrictions on abortion clinics or redefining marriage.

“Social issues are important to many people, but in terms of real people they impact, the number is smaller,” he said. “If there is a firestorm on a social issue down the hall, that makes (budget reform) more difficult.”

Beatty said Graves won with 70 percent of the vote in 1998 for a second term and could afford to push back against conservatives who wanted to go deeper with tax cuts. The late Gov. William Avery fought a similar battle in the 1960s when he revamped education, putting more responsibility for funding at the state level. That move cost him a second term.

Graves, who served from 1995 to 2003, said the governor has to weigh concerns of the entire state, not just those he courted on the campaign trail.

“I do think the responsibility of governing is that you have to put the politics aside and get to the issue of solving problems,” said Graves in a telephone interview. “I was always trying to strike that balance with the emerging conservative way of thinking, especially on taxes, while trying to support social services, education and infrastructure.”

Graves, who was also secretary of state for eight years, said there is only so far the governor can push his policies while maintaining a climate where business can thrive and Kansans can enjoy life. He approached each day trying to disappoint “less than 50 percent” of the people.

“You can’t have something for nothing. You’re always walking a fine line,” he said.

Brownback said despite immediate budget concerns Kansas has much to tout, including the trained work force, potential for wind energy development and infrastructure.

“It’s that basic Kansas ethic that is probably the best thing,” he said. “These are fabulous people. I don’t go anywhere in the country if people have been around Kansans that they don’t say they are good, hardworking people.”