Brownback seen as losing influence going into ‘lame duck’ phase

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses a joint caucus of the Kansas Senate and House republicans, Thursday, June 11, 2015 in Topeka, Kan. (Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

? Republican Gov. Sam Brownback swept into office with 63 percent of the vote in the 2010 elections. And with super majorities of Republicans in both chambers, he had little trouble enacting historic changes in state government.

During his first term, with help from a willing Legislature, he set in motion a strongly conservative agenda that included signing into law some of the most restrictive anti-abortion statutes lawmakers had ever considered.

He overhauled the state’s Medicaid system, putting it under the management of three private insurance companies who operate it as a “managed care” health plan.

And he reduced the size of the state workforce by cutting spending, abolishing a number of state agencies such as the Kansas Parole Board, and consolidating others, such as by putting the Kansas Health Policy Authority into the Department of Health and Environment.

But his signature accomplishment was passage in 2012 of historic income tax cuts that reduced tax rates across the board and eliminated income taxes entirely for more than 330,000 business owners.

Three years later, with the state facing a mounting budget crisis that was largely driven by the 2012 tax cuts, he ran into strong resistance from members of his own party who wanted to reverse course. And as the 2015 legislative session dragged on for a record-setting 113 days, it appeared his once-powerful influence had waned.

Critics said he was either unable or unwilling to get directly involved in leading lawmakers toward a solution to the state’s $400 million budget hole, and when Brownback finally did put forth his own tax proposal, it got just three votes in the Republican-controlled House.

A few GOP lawmakers say they were disappointed in the way Brownback handled the 2015 session, but they’re not yet ready to write him off as a lame duck.

“I don’t know, as (any) governor has a lot of influence over the past years, I’ve noticed,” said Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, who described Brownback as a longtime friend.

“I think we were trying to get the governor involved this year because because we really felt maybe we went too far one way, and we need to back off,” Ostmeyer said. “I know when I had my meetings with the governor, I tried to relay that to him. I don’t want to say he didn’t listen to me, but I always got the feeling when I walked out, that wasn’t going to be an option, and that always kind of disappointed me.”

However, Rep. Jene Vickrey, of Louisburg, the House Republican leader, said it was the Legislature, not the governor, that was responsible for the difficulties of the session.

“I believe that he’s focused on helping us get the work done, but it’s really our work to do,” Vickrey said.

“A lot of people were hoping he would weigh in a little earlier because his direction is still important for a lot of folks to hear,” said Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City. “He has a vision for the state, and people need to know what that vision is.”

Fort Hays State University political science professor Chapman Rackaway said it’s still too early to call Brownback a “lame duck” governor.

“It’s more appropriate to wait until after the midterm elections in 2016,” he said. “Clearly he has no path to the presidency. He’ll be term-limited out in 2018. And what clout he had with the Legislature doesn’t appear to be very strong anymore.”

“Up until this week, I would have said he seemed to have lost it,” Rackaway said. “He wasn’t exerting a lot of leadership. He wasn’t doing much in terms of public statements that either chamber was really following. It has looked like the governor doesn’t have nearly the clout that was ascribed to him.”

But Kansas University political science professor Burdett Loomis, who formerly worked in Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration, said the 2015 session shows Brownback’s “lame duck” period has already begun.

“He is a lame duck by definition,” Loomis said. “This is a guy who’s got a huge Republican majority in both chambers, and an ideological majority in both chambers. What’s strange to me is, why was this so hard?”

Next year, both the House and Senate will be up for re-election, and that’s when Brownback’s own political stature, strong or receding, will be important to Republican candidates statewide.

In 2012, with help from the Kansas Chamber and other outside groups, Brownback and his allies successfully recruited conservative challengers to unseat sitting moderate Republicans, a feat that helped bolster his power for the next two years.

A key question in 2016, Loomis said, will be how many Republican candidates will even want Brownback to campaign with them.

“It probably varies from place to place,” he said. “I don’t know how much Sam’s going to be directly, personally involved. It’d be interesting to see what his personal approval rating is right now. It can’t be very high.”

“The other thing is, we don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” Loomis said. “This budget is held together with duct tape, baling wire, you name it, and Brownback could still have to cut some money. It may well be that he’s going to have continued bleeding in this budget, and he’ll continue to be in the news, not in a positive way. So I don’t think we can judge right now what his impact is going to be.”