Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback began the process of saying goodbye to the state of Kansas Thursday as he prepares for a job in the Trump administration as U.S. ambassador at-large for religious liberty.
"It's been a great pleasure and an honor of mine to serve the people of the state of Kansas in various capacities for over 30 years," he said during a Statehouse news conference. "I have loved it. I am from this state, I am of this state, and it's just been a hoot."
During the news conference, which may have been his last as governor, Brownback cited a long list of policy initiatives that he pushed through as governor, ranging from new restrictions on abortion and efforts to protect the state's water resources to his controversial tax policies that state lawmakers reversed this year but that he still defends.
"Our objective on that piece of the tax cuts worked," Brownback said, referring to the elimination of taxes on certain kinds of business income that was a cornerstone of his tax policy. "Record small business formation when it was declining nationwide. Record private-sector job growth, although we've bounced off of that a little bit, and a 3.7 percent unemployment rate. That was our target. What failed to materialize as much as we needed it to because of the recession was revenue for the state."
Brownback continued to blame the state's revenue shortfalls in recent years on low oil and farm commodity prices, not on his tax policies.
"We hit a recession in '15," he said. "If we hit normal economic growth numbers for the state of Kansas in '15 and '16, we don't have a problem. We didn't. We were in a recession, a commodity-driven recession, and you're seeing multiple states wrestle with that set of issues."
The White House announced Brownback's nomination late Wednesday and formally sent it to the U.S. Senate for confirmation on Thursday.
Brownback's confirmation is expected to go through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. His office said Thursday that it had not yet determined a schedule for hearings.
“I am glad the Trump administration shares my commitment to defending religious freedom and look forward to the consideration of Governor Brownback’s nomination,” Corker said in an email statement distributed by his office.
That committee has been slow in processing other Trump nominations as Senate Democrats have tried to block a number of appointments.
During his news conference, Brownback would not say when he will resign or even whether he plans to wait for Senate confirmation. Once he does resign, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will take over as governor.
Colyer did not attend the news conference and hasn't spoken publicly yet about what he intends to do as governor. Brownback, however, said he has full confidence in Colyer.
"Jeff's going to do a fantastic job," Brownback said. "Jeff will be his own man, his own person. He's an accomplished physician, an accomplished public policy person. He is highly qualified in health care issues, which will be a big issue, depending on what Congress and the president do on health care."
The ambassador at-large post was created in 1998 with passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, which Brownback was an early supporter of when he served as a U.S. senator from Kansas. Most of the people who have held the post have been religious leaders themselves, including the most recent ambassador, Rabbi David Saperstein.
Brownback said he was uniquely qualified for that position, citing his long track record of speaking out against religious repression around the world.
"International religious freedom is going the wrong way. It's getting worse around the world, not better," Brownback said. "It's getting less free rather than more free. There's more persecution, not less that's taking place over the last 20 years since that original bill was passed."