How the Brown­back-Colyer era shaped Kansas for 8 years

The Wichita Eagle - - Front Page - BY JONATHAN SHORMAN [email protected]­chi­taea­

When Demo­crat Laura Kelly be­comes the gov­er­nor of Kansas on Mon­day, she will end eight years of uni­fied Repub­li­can con­trol of the state — an era marked by fights over taxes, wel­fare and Med­i­caid.

Repub­li­can Govs. Sam Brown­back and Jeff Colyer changed Kansas in sig­nif­i­cant ways, mov­ing the state in a con­ser­va­tive di­rec­tion with laws and poli­cies that af­fected hun­dreds of thou­fund­ing. sands of lives.

They cut in­come taxes, spark­ing a years-long fight that even­tu­ally re­sulted in the cuts be­ing largely re­versed. They pri­va­tized Med­i­caid, which pro­vides health cov­er­age to more than 400,000 Kansans. And they changed wel­fare and passed anti-abor­tion leg­is­la­tion.

But Repub­li­cans un­der Brown­back and Colyer failed to achieve some of their most am­bi­tious goals, in­clud­ing chang­ing how jus­tices are se­lected for the Kansas Supreme Court and amend­ing the state con­sti­tu­tion re­view of school “What Brown­back and the con­ser­va­tives wanted to do was make Kansas a shin­ing light of con­ser­vatism in Amer­ica,” said Bob Beatty, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Wash­burn Univer­sity and long­time ob­server of Kansas pol­i­tics.

Brown­back has said that Kansas saw progress dur­ing his time as gov­er­nor, im­prov­ing in the


Bob Beatty, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Wash­burn Univer­sity

ar­eas he focused on dur­ing his cam­paigns.

“When I ran, I ran on five mea­sur­ables. I said, pri­vate sec­tor job cre­ation, per­sonal in­come lev­els, fourth-grade read­ing, ca­reer col­lege readi­ness and re­duc­tion in child­hood poverty,” Brown­back said in De­cem­ber 2017. “Of those five, four of them have im­proved sub­stan­tially, and one’s flat, fourth-grade read­ing.”

Colyer said dur­ing an in­ter­view that he was able to change the tone in the gov­er­nor’s of­fice dur­ing his year as gov­er­nor. The bud­get will in­clude a $900 mil­lion sur­plus this year, more Kansans are work­ing than ever be­fore and the state’s credit out­look has im­proved, he said.

“I think most Kansans will see that we walked into a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion and that we’ve been suc­cess­ful,” Colyer said.

When Democrats and other crit­ics look back at the last eight years, they see the scars from Brown­back’s tax ex­per­i­ment, how­ever.

“The ma­jor legacy of the last eight years is that tax cuts for the rich to stim­u­late the econ­omy do not work. And that starv­ing the so-called beast of gov­ern­ment re­sults in the cit­i­zens fail­ing to re­ceive the ser­vices they de­serve from their gov­ern­ment,” Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wi­chita, said.


Brown­back’s de­ci­sion in 2012 to sign leg­is­la­tion cut­ting in­come taxes set Kansas on a path that ended in a June 2017 show­down be­tween Brown­back and law­mak­ers over rolling back the pol­icy. Law­mak­ers pre­vailed.

The bill cut tax rates. It also elim­i­nated taxes for thou­sands of busi­nesses — a move that came to be de­rided as un­fair and costly. Brown­back hailed the law as an ex­per­i­ment, but by 2014 Kansas was be­gin­ning to miss rev­enue pro­jec­tions, trig­ger­ing years of bud­get cuts as the state re­peat­edly col­lected less tax rev­enue than ex­pected.

Op­po­si­tion to the tax pol­icy started to build, and by 2016 mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans swept out a num­ber of con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers who sup­ported the pol­icy. Democrats also picked up seats, set­ting the stage for its re­ver­sal less than a year later.

Brown­back said that re­peal­ing the tax pol­icy rep­re­sented a “step back­wards” for Kansas.

“A lot of peo­ple made it about me, but it’s not about me. It’s about Kansas,” he said the day af­ter the tax cuts were largely re­pealed. “It’s about the fu­ture. It’s about which way we want to go. Do we want to be a high-tax, slow-growth or no-growth state, or a pro-growth state?”

But for nu­mer­ous law­mak­ers and oth­ers, the Brown­back ex­per­i­ment be­came a cau­tion­ary tale.

“I think it is good to try bold things but it is very im­por­tant to re­main open to whether that bold thing is work­ing or whether there is some ad­just­ment that has to be made along the way,” said Rep. Steven John­son, an As­saria Repub­li­can who chairs the House Tax Com­mit­tee.

Colyer largely sidestepped the is­sue dur­ing his time as gov­er­nor, even though he had been Brown­back’s lieu­tenant gov­er­nor through­out the tax fight. Colyer be­came gov­er­nor in Jan­uary 2018 af­ter Brown­back re­signed to take a diplo­matic post in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“What’s hap­pened has hap­pened,” Colyer would say of the tax fight.

Since the re­ver­sal of the tax cuts, rev­enue col­lec­tions have im­proved. The state is now pro­jected to end the fis­cal year with a bal­ance of more than $900 mil­lion. The fi­nan­cial health of state gov­ern­ment is a point of pride for Colyer as he pre­pares to leave of­fice.

In his fi­nal days in of­fice, Colyer has inched closer to de­fend­ing the tax pol­icy.

“I think it was im­por­tant to re­turn money to the peo­ple and to do that. Money in peo­ple’s pock­ets, par­tic­u­larly in the mid­dle of a re­ces­sion, was par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant,” Colyer told the KCUR pro­gram Up To Date on Wed­nes­day.


Al­though Brown­back’s tax pol­icy was re­versed, an ar­ray of other poli­cies re­main in place.

Brown­back, along with Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, low­ered life­time lim­its on wel­fare ben­e­fits and in­creased work re­quire­ments. Sup­port­ers said the changes would spur in­di­vid­u­als to seek jobs but op­po­nents said it was a way to kick peo­ple off wel­fare.

Brown­back also pri­va­tized the state’s Med­i­caid pro­gram. In a shift spear­headed by Colyer, Kansas handed over the op­er­a­tion of Med­i­caid to man­aged care com­pa­nies.

The change brought years of com­plaints from re­cip­i­ents, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion says the move im­proved pro­gram ef­fi­ciency.

“I think one thing that Gov. Brown­back did us a great ser­vice on was re­form­ing Med­i­caid and mak­ing sure we tried to help in­di­vid­u­als in need to be­come self-suf­fi­cient again,” Se­nate Pres­i­dent Susan Wa­gle, R-Wi­chita, said.

Brown­back and Colyer both op­posed ef­forts to ex­pand Med­i­caid, which would of­fer health cov­er­age to thou­sands of Kansans. Law­mak­ers ap­proved ex­pan­sion in 2017, but were not able to over­come a veto from Brown­back. Kelly has named Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion one of her top pri­or­i­ties.

In ad­di­tion, Brown­back and Colyer also signed a num­ber of anti-abor­tion mea­sures into law. Some have been chal­lenged in court, in­clud­ing a mea­sure in­tended to ban telemedicine abor­tions and an­other that places ad­di­tional re­quire­ments on abor­tion clin­ics.

Colyer signed a mas­sive school fund­ing in­crease into law in an ef­fort to draw to a close a years­long law­suit over fund­ing. The bill ramps up fund­ing by $525 mil­lion a year over five years.

And al­though some Repub­li­cans have op­posed in­creased fund­ing, Colyer prided him­self on sign­ing the leg­is­la­tion. Still, the Kansas Supreme Court said the bill didn’t ac­count for in­fla­tion. Chang­ing the bill could re­quire up­wards of $90 mil­lion a year, and law­mak­ers are ex­pected to tackle the is­sue this year.


Crit­ics of the Brown­back and Colyer ad­min­is­tra­tions point to prob­lems that con­tinue to face Kansas. Per­haps chief among them: the state’s fos­ter care sys­tem.

Un­der Brown­back, the fos­ter care sys­tem showed signs of sig­nif­i­cant strain as the num­ber of chil­dren go­ing into fos­ter care climbed. Re­ports of chil­dren sleep­ing in con­trac­tor of­fices, miss­ing fos­ter chil­dren, and al­le­ga­tions that gay and les­bian fos­ter par­ents faced dis­crim­i­na­tion all rocked the sys­tem.

Sev­eral high-pro­file child deaths also drew pub­lic scru­tiny.

“I think that they will al­ways be re­mem­bered for the dam­age that was done to­ward DCF” and other pro­grams, said Chris Reeves, the Kansas Demo­cratic na­tional com­mit­tee­man.

“Ev­ery­body looks for this legacy of the pos­i­tive things they did, but there’s not a lot that peo­ple are go­ing to re­mem­ber out of Brown­back and Colyer,” he said.

Colyer made im­prov­ing the Depart­ment for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies, which over­sees the sys­tem, a cen­tral fo­cus. He an­nounced a new agency sec­re­tary, Gina MeierHum­mel, and promised in­creased trans­parency.

“We’ve been much more trans­par­ent and I think that trans­parency is so im­por­tant so we can re­ally deal with it. And you’re start­ing to see re­sults,” Colyer said dur­ing a De­cem­ber in­ter­view.

He says progress has been made even as DCF has come un­der grow­ing crit­i­cism for its de­ci­sion to change how it works with fos­ter care and fam­ily preser­va­tion providers. A de­ci­sion to change from award­ing con­tracts to in­stead award­ing grants has proved con­tro­ver­sial within child wel­fare cir­cles.

Kelly said she will halt the grants, call­ing them ef­fec­tively no-bid con­tracts, and she has an­nounced a new leader for the agency.

De­spite par­ti­san bat­tles, the past eight years did bring some bi­par­ti­san ac­com­plish­ments, too.

Law­mak­ers over­hauled the state’s pen­sion sys­tem, which was in poor shape just a few years ago fol­low­ing the Great Re­ces­sion. The sys­tem, called KPERS, is in much bet­ter fi­nan­cial con­di­tion to­day.

Brown­back also focused through­out his time as gov­er­nor on water pol­icy, in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of a 50-year vision for con­serv­ing the state’s water re­sources.

Still, Brown­back de­parted of­fice a deeply un­pop­u­lar gov­er­nor. A Morn­ing Con­sult poll taken in the fi­nal weeks of his time in of­fice found Brown­back had a 24 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing, while 64 per­cent dis­ap­proved.

Colyer has fared bet­ter, with 37 per­cent ap­proval and 32 per­cent dis­ap­proval, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Morn­ing Con­sult poll.

But Colyer was un­able to con­vince Repub­li­can vot­ers to nom­i­nate him for gov­er­nor in Au­gust, los­ing the pri­mary against Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach by just 343 votes. Colyer chose not to pur­sue a re­count, and he has said the de­ci­sion was the right one.

Kobach cam­paigned on ef­fec­tively re­viv­ing Brown­back’s tax cuts (though he also promised re­duced spend­ing), but lost to Kelly by sev­eral per­cent­age points.


Chris Reeves, the Kansas Demo­cratic na­tional com­mit­tee­man.


Go­ing for­ward, will the Brown­back-Colyer era have a long-term po­lit­i­cal ef­fect in Kansas? It de­pends, ac­cord­ing to Pa­trick Miller, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Kansas.

The in­tense neg­a­tiv­ity felt to­ward Brown­back won’t wear away over night, he said. But whether the Brown­back era con­tin­ues to hang over Kansas de­pends in part on how his pol­icy legacy holds up.

“If you see a Repub­li­can Leg­is­la­ture dou­bling down on de­fend­ing Brown­back poli­cies that have been so neg­a­tively per­ceived – if that be­comes the nar­ra­tive of the next two years, then it might be some­thing that helps Democrats po­lit­i­cally two years from now,” Miller said.

“But if in 2020 and 2022 we’re in­stead talk­ing about Kelly hav­ing poli­cies of her own that are new and dis­tinct and how much they’ve suc­ceeded or failed or we’re on to some other hot topic – then I think Brown­back can be for­got­ten in that sense.”


Then Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, left, and Gov. Sam Brown­back moved Kansas in a con­ser­va­tive di­rec­tion with laws and poli­cies that af­fected hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives. The state will take a new path Mon­day when Demo­crat Laura Kelly is sworn in as gov­er­nor fol­low­ing Colyer.


Gov. Sam Brown­back shakes hands with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer in 2012 af­ter sign­ing into law one of the largest tax cut bills in Kansas his­tory.

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