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The question about the governor: Lawmakers discuss possibility of Brownback leaving

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In any given year, no matter who the governor is, one of the basic questions lawmakers have to deal with is what the governor will accept. That's just as true for big issues like budgets and taxes as it is for relatively obscure issues like funding the state water plan.

Normally, legislative leaders deal with that by having regular talks with the governor, or meeting with his or her staff, and talking about the details of legislation. What does the governor want? What will he or she accept or not accept? What can the leaders pass through their respective chambers?

Throughout this session, though, members of both parties in both chambers have complained that they have found it increasingly difficult to do that with Gov. Sam Brownback. For some, the frustration started the opening week of the session when, after convincing lawmakers two years ago to repeal the school finance law that had been in place since the early 1990s and begin work on crafting a new one, Brownback offered no specific proposal of his own, saying that was a legislative responsibility.

And now with the specific news that he may, or may not, leave office soon to accept a job in Rome as the Trump administration's U.N. ambassador for agriculture and food agencies, one might think the problem might get even worse.

Surprisingly, though, members of both parties, and in both chambers, are saying it almost doesn't matter anymore where the governor goes because they're working on their own agendas, at their own schedules.

"I don't know that it's a big consideration to us at this point," said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia. "We know what we need to do. We need to come up with a structurally balanced budget and a tax plan that supports it. I don't know that we've worried at this point what the governor will sign or won't sign. I think we're trying to find consensus within our own body about what that budget and tax looks like, and we'll pass it out of here when we find it, regardless of who's in the governor's chair."

Brownback hasn't officially commented on the story, first reported Wednesday by Kansas Public Radio, which cited a single anonymous source. But he did nothing to dampen the speculation Thursday when, responding to questions from reporters, he declined to commit to staying in the governor's office through the end of the session.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, right, along with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer participates in a Humanitarian award ceremony Thursday, March 9, 2017, at the statehouse in Topeka, Kans. The governor said he has no comment at this time about the possibility of being named to an ambassadorship in Rome representing the U.S. at United Nations agricultural organizations. (Thad Allton/Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, right, along with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer participates in a Humanitarian award ceremony Thursday, March 9, 2017, at the statehouse in Topeka, Kans. The governor said he has no comment at this time about the possibility of being named to an ambassadorship in Rome representing the U.S. at United Nations agricultural organizations. (Thad Allton/Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

The only statement from the governor's office concerning the possibility of his resigning came Wednesday from his spokeswoman, Melika Willoughby, who said, "Governor Brownback is focused on working with the Kansas legislature to balance the budget and pass a modern school funding system."

But Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has said that's not what she has seen. As recently as Tuesday, just before the Senate shot down, by a vote of 1-37, Brownback's tax proposal for balancing the state budget, she accused Brownback of refusing to work with lawmakers.

"We met yesterday (Monday). We had a leadership meeting yesterday," she said. "We threw out some concepts and he wasn't very interested in budget stability and predictability, so this is where we start."

Asked in advance what she thought a negative vote would mean, she said: "For most legislators, all it's saying is the governor is refusing to acknowledge that we have a deep budget hole, and he's refusing to give us solutions. If anybody's playing games, it's the governor."

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, the assistant minority leader in the Senate, agreed that the prospect of the governor leaving midsession is having little impact on the legislative process.

"We've been pretty much left on our own to deal with the taxes, to deal with the budget, to deal with school finance," she said. "His office has not been engaged at all, from what I can see, other than to wield his veto pen. So I think we'll just keep doing what we're doing and deal with whoever is in the governor's seat when the time comes."

Meanwhile on the House side, Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he's been struggling to get Brownback's attention on a relatively mundane issue, but one that Brownback has said is a high priority: finding a way to fund a long-term plan to protect the state's dwindling water resources.

"I called the governor's staff this (Thursday) morning and said, you guys have not engaged," Sloan said. "The governor hasn't done anything. His agencies haven't come in and said, 'This is what we want.' They all supported the Blue Ribbon Task Force (which recommended earmarking about $50 million out of existing sales tax revenue for water projects). But they backed off because they knew that wasn't going to pass. But they're not offering anything else. They're not supporting anything else."

Sloan is one of the few Republicans willing to say out loud what many will say only privately, that he thinks it might be easier on the Legislature if Brownback does leave.

"If (Lt. Gov.) Jeff Colyer becomes governor, yes he has ties to the administration's policies, but he's not identified with most of them," Sloan said. "And so it may be easier for him to accept an income tax reform bill than it is for Governor Brownback."

One exception to that, Sloan acknowledged, is KanCare, the state's privatized Medicaid system, which is largely the product of Colyer's efforts.

"On most issues he is not (tied to Brownback's policies)," Sloan said. "On KanCare he certainly is and I would not expect him to support a Medicaid expansion bill. But he may have more flexibility on the income tax."

Sen. Kelly, however, said she thinks it's too early for lawmakers to start pondering whether Brownback or Colyer will be the governor by the end of the session.

"It depends, one, on if he gets the position, which he has not gotten yet, and, two, if he can move in before he's confirmed," she said. "If he has to wait until Senate confirmation, he could be here until December."

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