Opinion: Nov. 2019: Gov. Kobach’s 1st year
From the vantage point of November 2019, the chaos of Kris Kobach’s initial year as governor seems inevitable. The ambitious Kobach, much like Sam Brownback, assumed that a small-state governorship could propel him into the national spotlight.
Remarkably, it has taken Kobach only a year to crash and burn, compared to Brownback’s entire first term.
In 2018, a clear majority of Kansas voters chose someone other than Kobach, who defeated Democrat Laura Kelly, 45 percent to 44 percent, with 11 percent of the electorate selecting Independent Greg Orman (8 percent) or two other Quixotic candidates. Although Republicans captured both legislative chambers, just half of these GOP legislators have actively supported him.
With little popular or legislative support, his agenda — lower taxes, less spending, fewer immigrants, more stringent voting restrictions, less regulation, and limits on judicial review of education spending through a constitutional amendment — proved dead on arrival. But Gov. Kobach didn’t seem to care, even as his taxing and spending proposals foundered in the Legislature.
Like his fellow far-right governors in Illinois (Bruce Rauner) and Maine (Paul LePage), Kobach embraced bruising battles with legislators and the resulting policy deadlock.
When the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that schools needed an additional $200 million to resolve the “adequacy” question, Kobach essentially said “over my dead body” and vetoed a series of legislative attempts to address the issue.
Not surprisingly, Kobach turned to executive actions to seek some victories. First, he categorically rejected accepting any federal funds for social services, saying, “Our goal is to reduce dependence and get everyone back into the workforce.”
Subsequently, after legislators rejected his proposal to strip in-state funding from undocumented Kansas high school graduates, Kobach threatened to withhold funding for institutions that offered such rates. This accompanied his budget proposal to reduce higher education funding by 10 percent.
Kobach also vowed to make Kansas the test case for aggressive cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants. The ACLU immediately sued, noting its overwhelming record of victories over Kobach in litigation. Kansas farmers, ranchers and meatpackers immediately felt the pinch of a declining work force, with no native Kansans picking up the slack. The governor expressed no concern, arguing that undocumented immigrants and their families were simply “self-deporting.”
As the legislative session wrapped up, the moderate-conservative majority passed omnibus funding that increased state spending by 4 percent, less than the revenue gains over the previous year. Gov. Kobach rejected that budget, provoking a back-and-forth round of budget bills and gubernatorial vetoes.
By June 30, the end of the fiscal year, neither school finance nor the overall budget had been resolved. The Supreme Court threatened to take over Kansas schools, but demurred, waiting for a special session to address school finance.
Kobach began the July special session by demanding that lawmakers reduce the budget and resist the Supreme Court’s dictates. Around the state, newspapers unanimously condemned his positions; this simply strengthened the governor’s resolve.
The special session ended in deadlock, redeemed only by the passage of the first of month-to-month continuing resolutions that maintain current spending levels.
Despite the governor’s policy debacles, he continues to appear on Fox, write for Breitbart, and appeal to the farthest right third of the electorate, all the while claiming his administration as a great success. (Sound familiar?)
That’s where we stand now, a year after Kobach’s narrow victory. Fiscal deadlock, no policies, a constitutional crisis, and, once again, an ambitious, delusional governor who makes Kansas the butt of jokes across the country and around the world.
— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor at the University of Kansas.