GOP lawmakers cite rising frustration, even anger, with Brownback administration

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback waves after delivering his State of the State address to a combined session at the Kansas State Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, in Topeka.

? A rift between Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his fellow Republicans in the Kansas Legislature was laid bare for all to see last week when the GOP-dominated Senate voted to override one of the governor’s vetoes and came within a single vote of overriding another.

While those override votes involved relatively obscure issues that don’t directly affect the lives of most Kansans, Republicans in both chambers say the tension goes far beyond that, and the level of frustration, and even anger, toward the Brownback administration has been growing for some time.

Most of that has to do with what GOP lawmakers see as a lack of leadership coming from the governor’s office, particularly on budget and finance issues.

In this file photo from June 3, 2015, Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, left, confers with Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, right, during the chamber's session at the Statehouse in Topeka.

“You know, we’re going into our second legislative session with an unstable budget, no clear path to get out, and we were expecting the governor to give us a budget that balanced, and he hasn’t,” said Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park. “I’ve said it many times. We’re fatigued, we’re angry, we’re mad.”

Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, said there’s a similar level of frustration in the House.

“I understand that he’s saying the Legislature is the appropriator,” he said. “But he also has to have a plan for us to appropriate, and that’s what we like. I just feel that the House, much like the Senate, feels very frustrated with that, and I think they may show their frustration should those two items come up before the House.”

Brownback’s press secretary, Eileen Hawley, however, said the governor has been consulting with legislative leaders on a daily basis about the budget and, “We feel that it would be inappropriate for the governor to put forward a plan without first consulting with the legislative branch.”

Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, who serves on both the tax and budget committees in the House, also said there are similar feelings among GOP lawmakers in the House.

“I might tend to reclassify it more as frustration than anger,” he said. “I think it gets expressed as anger sometimes. But I think there is a growing frustration (over) how the communication has occurred between the executive branch and the legislative branch. I think that’s fair.

Kansas lawmakers from both sides of the aisle share their views about expanding the state's Medicaid program, known as KanCare, during a forum at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park on Jan. 5, 2016. Those participating included, from left: Sens. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park; Laura Kelly, D-Topeka; and Jeff King, R-Independence; and Reps. Jerry Henry, D-Atchison; and Mark Hutton, R-Wichita.

“For me, my frustration kind of hit an all-time high when the governor came out and said this session, we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” he said. “Number one, I’m really sick of hearing that. But number two, this is the same governor that sent us a budget last year that required us to raise taxes to meet his budget.

“And if he really believed that we had a spending problem, why did he send us a budget that required us to raise taxes?” Hutton asked. “It would have made last year a lot easier. We’d have been gone a lot sooner if he would have fulfilled that responsibility. But he didn’t. And I just don’t think he can have it both ways. And that frustrates me.”

Responding to Hutton and Denning, Hawley noted that both of those members have called for repealing, or scaling back, a controversial tax cut enacted in 2012 that exempted nonwage income of more than 330,000 business owners from taxation.

“Representative Hutton and Senator Denning are frustrated the governor will not support a tax increase,” she said. “We understand and respect their position. The governor, however, will continue to work with legislators on options for balancing the budget through a reduction of expenditures rather than an increase in taxes.”

Much of the GOP lawmakers’ frustration might have remained hidden below the surface, but for the controversies that erupted over the two veto items.

Docking building demolition

One of those involved a bill that specifically prohibited the administration from contracting to demolish the Docking State Office Building in Topeka, and blocked the spending of any money to relocate its “power plant,” equipment that sends heating and air conditioning to all the buildings in the Capitol area complex, without legislative approval.

Lawmakers, after consulting with the attorney general’s office and the Department of Administration, concluded that was the cheapest way to get out of contracts that the administration had already signed without their knowledge.

But Brownback vetoed the bill, then canceled the contracts on his own, which resulted in the state paying $2.1 million in penalties and other charges for backing out of the contract.

“In the Department of Corrections, we were looking for about $2 million to give them a raise,” Denning said. “We just spent it unnecessarily. That’s the kind of stuff that’s driving us crazy.”

What was most surprising to senators, though, was that when the Senate first started debating the override, Brownback began issuing statements, and posting messages on Twitter, saying that an override could jeopardize the state’s bond rating.

It was an argument never raised during the original debate on the bill, and it wasn’t mentioned in Brownback’s veto message on March 4.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, listens to testimony during a committee hearing, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, at the Statehouse in Topeka.

“I can tell you that when (Sen.) Kay (Wolf, R-Prairie Village) stood up to make that motion, I have never seen such an outpouring from the second floor with press releases and texts and phone calls to try and stop an act of the Legislature,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, referring to the governor’s office, which is located on the second floor of the Statehouse.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, accepted responsibility for that, saying he advised the governor not to air the concerns about the state’s bond rating publicly, out of concern that a public discussion by itself could raise concerns in the bond market.

That’s when Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 largely with support from Brownback and the Kansas Chamber, erupted.

“But the governor chose to do it on Twitter, did he not?” O’Donnell said. “So if we are not trying to publicly announce this, if this is an issue, do we as a Legislature get advice from our chief executive via Twitter that there’s a problem?”

“This is insane,” O’Donnell said later in the discussion.

In this June 6, 2015 file photo, Sen. Michael O'Donnell, left, R-Wichita, reacts to comments made during negotiations between the Senate and the House on a bill raising the state's tax on HMOs to help balance the state budget, at the Statehouse in Topeka. On the right is Rep. Dan Hawkins, also R-Wichita.

Hawley said Brownback had tried to resolve that issue with Senate leadership and that he articulated his concerns to Wagle before he announced his veto of the bill.

“However, after a discussion of the bond rating issue had already begun on the Senate floor it became clear that an amicable resolution was not going to be possible,” she said.

That veto override fell one vote short, 26-13, of the two-thirds majority needed. One senator, Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, was absent.

STAR bonds veto

Denning spearheaded a second override attempt that was successful. It concerned a budget proviso blocking the formation of any new sales tax revenue, or STAR, bond districts in Wyandotte County until new legislation is enacted to reform the STAR bond process.

He said he did so because sales tax revenues from the Village West shopping area in Kansas City are due to start coming back on the tax rolls next year.

But Denning said lawmakers didn’t learn until recently that those revenues were not being counted in the governor’s budget projections because the governor was planning to use that money, more than $42 million a year, to finance new STAR bonds in another district that has not yet been approved.

Rep. Hutton said that deal raised even more questions about the governor’s management of state finances.

“You’re spending $42 million, or committing $42 million of sales tax revenue to something when he’s sitting there telling us we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense to me. And that’s frustrating.”

The House, however, probably will not vote on that veto override because the Senate has since passed a STAR bonds reform bill, and if the House agrees to that bill and the governor signs it, the budget proviso will become a moot point.

Eroding GOP support

At one point during a recent caucus meeting on the veto override, Wagle asked that the media and state agency staff leave the room so the Republican senators could discuss internal strategy in private.

Afterward, Wagle spoke with reporters and said lawmakers have growing concerns about the governor’s management, and that could affect his ability to get future initiatives through the Legislature, such as one being considered to sell off the state’s interest in future tobacco settlement payments.

“I think when we walked out the door (last year) and we knew that we were bonding KPERS for $1 billion — and we were hesitant on that, but our financial advisers said that would work — and then (the Kansas Department of Transportation) bonded $400-plus million after we left with interest payments only for 10 years, I think we were rather concerned,” Wagle said. “I think most of our legislators are very concerned about being structurally in a deficit situation right now.”

In response, Hawley, Brownback’s press secretary, said: “President Wagle has decided to work with moderates and Democrats to attack conservatives like Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee) and Sam Brownback because she is frustrated with them for blocking her efforts to expand Obamacare and raise income taxes, and she knows the media will reward her with positive coverage for doing so.”

In an email, Wagle did not directly respond to that comment but said it’s unquestionable that the state faces a tremendous fiscal challenge.

“More money is being spent by state government than is coming in from taxes and fees. That is just a fact,” Wagle said.

“A number of legislators have proposed and continue to propose solutions to balance the state budget,” she said. “I am certain that the House, the Senate and the Governor will be more supportive of some of the ideas that are being put forth than others and it may be that there are differences in opinion amongst our co-equal branches of government as to how Kansas can best deal with these challenges.”

Meanwhile Denning, the Overland Park senator, said he’s not sure whether the recent controversies will affect Brownback’s ability to push his agenda through the Legislature.

“I think that really depends on what the issue is,” he said.