Remember when Senate President Susan Wagle and Gov. Sam Brownback weren’t getting along? In a February op-ed on this page, Wagle accused Brownback of trying to use “one-time money” and “creative gimmicks” to address the state’s $300 million shortfall. She criticized his plan to “deplete the state’s assets,” withhold another KPERS payment, send consumers across state lines with increased tobacco and liquor taxes, and continue allowing “some Kansans to skirt income taxes.” According to Wagle, the governor’s budget proposal was “neither structurally sound nor fiscally conservative.”
In January, Senate GOP leaders released a statement that criticized Brownback for failing to provide a “structural fix” to the state’s fiscal crisis: “The governor continues to use one-time money, adds new taxes on the middle class, and neglects to fix the LLC loophole. The math simply just doesn’t add up.”
When the Senate leadership released its own tax plan in early February, Brownback lambasted it as an attack on the middle class: “Susan Wagle’s tax plan needlessly harms the real people that serve as the lifeblood of Kansas … It punishes job-creators, the backbone of our Kansas economy.” A few days later, Wagle wrote the op-ed that challenged Brownback for his unwillingness to produce a structurally sound budget: “I feel that the governor’s budget proposal falls short of this expectation.” In the same piece, she promised to work with her colleagues to make “tough decisions” and “do right by the Kansans who sent us here.”
For a short while, it looked like Wagle was going to defy the governor and insist on a stable, long-term budget. However, as the legislative session has progressed, her once-robust opposition has all but disappeared. When both chambers passed a tax reform package that would have brought in $1 billion over the next two years and repealed the LLC exemption, Wagle was one of the key senators who failed to override Brownback’s veto (after passing in the House, the override fell three votes short). Despite the fact that more than 80 percent of Kansans want the Legislature to “do right” by their low-income neighbors and expand Medicaid, Wagle took Brownback’s side yet again and voted against expansion.
Wagle was also one of three senators who voted in favor of a 4.6 percent flat tax — the only legislative tax proposal that Brownback promised to sign this session: “The Senate’s flat-tax legislation creates a single low tax rate for Kansans, solving today’s budget challenges without unnecessarily harming economic growth in Kansas.” After the flat tax was almost unanimously defeated, Wagle expressed her gratitude: “I think that (Brownback) softening his position will help us tremendously.” The governor responded in kind: “I’m glad the president and Sen. Denning were willing to move forward with it.”
Instead of voting for legislation that would have restored the third income tax bracket and provided a sustainable source of revenue for years to come, Wagle supported a bill that would have forced low-income Kansans to pay the same tax rate as millionaires (and generated about half as much revenue as House Bill 2178). If this is her way of “doing right” by the people of this state, she needs to have a chat with the many lawmakers who were elected on explicitly anti-Brownback platforms.
While it’s important to work with the governor, the Senate needs a leader who will stand up to him when he’s wrong.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Hosman, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.