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Barbara Shelly: Brownback a prophet without honor?

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Gov. Sam Brownback knows his New Testament, so he may be taking comfort right now in Jesus’ assertion that no prophet is accepted in his own country.

Or his own state. Three recent polls show Brownback’s approval numbers hovering around the mid-30s. One poll even had him losing to his presumed Democratic opponent, House Minority Leader Paul Davis, in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

To feel the love these days, Brownback has to look outside Kansas. The conservative media still adore him.

“He has quietly become one of the GOP’s leading conservative reformers, pushing for smaller government and lower taxes in the heartland,” a recent National Review piece by John J. Miller reported.

“We have a red-state model and a blue-state model,” Brownback declares in the laudatory piece. “It’s going to break one way or the other. One will win and migrate to Washington.”

So sayeth the prophet.

But before spreading the red-state gospel to all the land, Brownback has to overcome resistance at home.

The Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University publishes an annual opinion survey called “Kansas Speaks.” Intended as a resource for legislators, it presents a timely picture of what’s going on with the citizenry.

Only 35 percent were “very” or “moderately” satisfied with Brownback’s performance. The state Legislature fared even worse. Only 27 percent of the respondents were in any way satisfied with its work.

The survey highlights some disconnects between politicians and citizens:

•  6 in 10 people polled supported the right of Kansas school districts to sue the state for failing to uphold its constitutional obligation to adequately fund elementary and secondary schools. Brownback and legislative leaders would like to clip that privilege.

•  About 55 percent of Kansans oppose allowing concealed handguns in schools, hospitals and government buildings. The Legislature passed a law last session permitting concealed-carry in all of those places under certain circumstances.

•  On Brownback’s signature issue – taxes – most citizens polled said they thought sales-tax and income-tax rates should remain where they are, putting them in conflict with the governor’s wish to eliminate the income tax. More than half supported increasing taxes on top income earners — exactly the group that gains the most from Brownback’s income-tax cuts. The tax that citizens most want to see lowered is the property tax, but those rates stand to climb as cities starved by revenue losses caused by income-tax cuts struggle to maintain services.

•  Although most people in the survey said they wanted government spending to be reduced or held steady, two-thirds also wanted to see funding for elementary and secondary education increased. Half thought the state should spend more on social services.

Something will have to give there. Education and social welfare consume at least three-fourths of the state budget. Kansans can’t have less government spending and more money for schools. More important, Brownback can’t have more income-tax cuts and not see the quality of his state’s schools and colleges decline.

Brownback told the National Review he sees himself in the vanguard of the struggle for self-government. He asked, “Are we going to be Europe or are we going to be America again?”

A good number of his constituents appear to just want to be Kansas, a conservative-leaning state, where people don’t believe in turning away from their schools or their neighbors. But the Brownback prophecy foreshadows something more radical and different.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

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