When historians review the Brownback era in Kansas state government, they are likely to marvel that the political agenda in Topeka was driven by a series of gambles – long shots that the state couldn’t have covered if conservatives had lost their bets.
Digging through news accounts, government documents and other archives from this period, historians may be puzzled that Gov. Sam Brownback and other conservative Republican leaders repeatedly placed high-stakes ideological wagers on policy issues and exhibited an un-Republican disregard for risk and the virtue of political pragmatism.
Those who study the early 21st century in Kansas may be particularly intrigued by the activist zeal that defined this brand of conservatism.
Though historians will have plenty of examples to choose from, they likely will focus on three from the first two years of the Brownback administration.
First, as debate raged across the country about the federal health care law, the governor decided not to wait for Thursday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to find out whether the state would have to implement the law. Over the objections of the state insurance commissioner, Brownback returned to the federal government last year a $31.5 million grant that would have financed a health insurance exchange.
Historians may note that when the Supreme Court upheld the insurance mandate and Brownback lost the bet, Kansas was placed at a serious disadvantage, with no funding for an exchange to help consumers find health insurance and just five months from a deadline to submit a plan for implementation.
A second political gamble that may intrigue historians of the future is Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s unyielding commitment to policing undocumented immigration, which placed him at odds with many Kansans in such traditional Republican constituencies as law enforcement, business and agriculture.
Historians may make the connection between Kobach’s political ambition and his after-hours work to draft legislation for other states to help them curtail illegal immigration. They may conclude that he bet his political future that the illegal immigration issue would propel him to prominence, only to find that voter-ID and “show-me-your-papers” efforts had lost national momentum by the time he sought higher office.
Finally, historians may be astonished at the audacious gamble by Brownback, who won passage of a bill eliminating the state income tax on most small businesses and reducing it for individuals.
Opponents of the tax cuts, including many Republicans, had warned that such deep reductions would create large deficits. Even so, Brownback’s ideological resolve never wavered. The historians likely will mention Brownback’s appearance on national television in June 2012, in which he cheerfully conceded that the tax cuts were “a real live experiment.”
Yes, historians will have reason to marvel.