Opinion: Does lipstick on old agenda sell it?
This year will test just how short voter memories are in Kansas. Will Kansans keep rejecting the politics of the Gov. Sam Brownback era? Or, will they buy those politics again, attractively repackaged and reframed? With the Kansas legislative session underway, that test starts now.
The Brownback era officially ended one year ago with Laura Kelly replacing Brownback’s running mate as governor. She still faces major challenges, but Kelly has enjoyed wins on the budget, transparency, education and possibly Medicaid expansion. She has also earned solid job approval numbers from Kansans in polls, even from Republican voters.
Kelly’s governing partner is the Legislature, led by conservatives who frequently supported Brownback’s policies. Brownback cutely called his supporters “Brownbackers.” Many are on record effectively saying that their biggest governing mistake was not Brownbacking Kansas harder. If only they had doubled down on Brownbacking the budget and taxes, everything would have been awesome.
What are former Brownbackers doing now? They are repackaging many of their old policies — same positions, different language. Many are also acting like Kansas politics began with Kelly, as if the Brownback era didn’t happen.
Take a recent column from House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a frequent supporter of the Brownback agenda. Consensus content aside, let’s dissect it to infer his priorities this session.
Ryckman criticized “Band-Aid fixes.” Fair point. Under Brownback, Band-Aid fixes like raiding state transportation funds to fill budget holes and “sun is shining’ incantations did not fix the problems his policies created. But what does this mean today?
Inferring from generic critiques and his public statements, he seems to criticize Kelly’s proposed KPERS reamortization plan, which would decrease short-term costs, increase long-term costs, but not impact retiree benefits. Fair and necessary debate. But there were 15 skipped or reduced KPERS payments in the Brownback era. What alternatives are former Brownbackers proposing for a funding problem they exacerbated, especially when they are also criticizing state spending?
He also mentions “fiscal responsibility so all parts of our state can flourish.” Meaning what? Conservatives have used this language to critique the recent school funding agreement, and pitted it against infrastructure as Ryckman does. Does this signal continued conservative opposition to that plan, which could reopen school funding litigation? Or is this a generic reference to increased funding for areas that Brownback cut?
Ryckman also criticizes citizen dependency on the state. Meaning what? Conservatives have used this language to oppose Medicaid expansion, calling it a handout for lazy people, when most potential enrollees are actually employed or disabled. Or is this a defense of controversial Brownback-era welfare rules that have been linked to negative outcomes for children?
As with most broad political-speak, room exists for interpretation. This year will clarify what policy specifics, if any, exist behind these critiques and how much they resemble the old Brownback agenda.
Kelly’s election was also a political advantage for Brownbackers. It focused attention on a new governor. Consequently, the more removed Kansans become from the Brownback era, the less they might remember its turmoil.
Going forward, do former Brownbackers offer real policy and work on necessary compromise? Or, do they repackage the old Brownback agenda, hoping that it sells better as voter memories fade? This legislative session will force conservatives to show their hand and test the will of voters to stay focused on leaving the Brownback era behind.
— Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.