Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback faces GOP opposition to major proposals

Pushback against Republican Gov. Sam Brownback reached a new height as members of his own party decried his proposal to pump money into public schools and cast doubt on his administration’s plan to build a new prison and make updates to its privatized Medicaid program.


Not yet confirmed for a job in President Donald Trump’s administration, Brownback remains in Kansas at the start of a legislative session many believe will be an uphill fight.

Brownback sparked backlash from his own party this past week by proposing more than $300 million in combined additional spending in this year and the next, including new appropriations to K-12 public schools. Conservatives were frustrated Brownback’s proposed budget wouldn’t balance in coming years, and moderates criticized him for spending money raised through a tax increase he vetoed last year.

“You know, he’s trying to get to Washington, D.C. He needs to get there,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said. “He is running the state like he’s still in D.C., and he must not have gotten the memo that we don’t print money in Kansas. We live within our means.”

Several Republican and Democratic senators urged Brownback to halt his administration’s plans to update the state’s privatized Medicaid program, KanCare, with lifetime caps, work requirements and various changes to the system and its oversight. Legislative leaders also cast skepticism on plans to rebuild Lansing Correctional Facility for more than $350 million.

“The pushback we’re seeing from Republicans against Governor Brownback isn’t something we saw in the first six years of his governorship,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University.

Brownback is in the last session of his second term, but could leave even sooner. He’s waiting for confirmation by the U.S. Senate to become ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Beatty said he thought Brownback still had allies in the Legislature, but he might not be able to garner much loyalty from legislators expecting him to leave soon, a “problem of many lame duck governors.” With the long wait for a confirmation, Beatty said Brownback wasn’t a standard lame duck.

“This is like two lame ducks, or a lame goose,” Beatty said. “It’s double.”

As part of his annual budget proposal, Brownback recommended a plan to add $600 million to K-12 schools over the next five years. The plan would expand education spending by $513 million beyond what has been outlined by the GOP-led Legislature.

“As a dad, I know that every parent’s greatest dream is for their children to grow, learn and succeed,” Brownback told lawmakers in his State of the State address. “So, let me address the biggest issue of the session, school finance. We have received the decree of the Kansas Supreme Court and are putting forth a proposal to comply, as we have done with the prior decisions.”

Brownback’s proposal, however, didn’t come with a tax increase or corresponding budget cuts to balance the state’s budget. Legislators said the proposal would bust the state’s budget after Brownback leaves office.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina conservative, called the budget “short-sighted.” On Twitter, Claeys accused Brownback of throwing all of his allies under the bus, putting the bus in reverse and lighting it on fire.

“The governor is certainly willing to review any alternative proposals the Legislature sends to his desk, and he is willing to work with the leadership of both chambers moving forward,” said Kendall Marr, Brownback’s spokesman.

Marr said complying with the Supreme Court would “certainly strain our ability to support other core government functions in the future.”

Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he hoped Brownback would be an “ally” for the Legislature, but legislative leaders would work to balance the budget.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said Brownback would still be able to influence legislators with his veto pen, but had a limited ability to bring them in and influence proposals.

“That’s virtually evaporated,” Ward said. “It’s gone, but he still has the ability to veto and make things extremely hard.”

Ward said he was surprised by the strength of the pushback from Republicans this week.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, called Brownback’s plan a “feel-good” budget that won’t balance.

“He’s made false promises, and we’re not going to rely on him, and we’re going to balance the budget,” Wagle said. “We have no choice.”