The nation — or at least its political sphere — is watching Kansas closely this summer as businesses back a political movement to shift the state further to the right, paving the way for Gov. Sam Brownback’s vision.
That could mean significant changes in state funding for schools, more gubernatorial influence on judicial selection, fewer rules for businesses and lower taxes.
In a nutshell: smaller government with fewer taxpayer-backed services.
It’s a return to the 1950s, said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Brownback’s alma mater, Kansas State University.
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“What it was like prior to the ’60s, really, I think is a vision that Gov. Brownback is headed for,” Aistrup said. “I’m not saying this is good or bad. It’s just different. And people need to be aware of what’s different.”
That was a time when the state spent less on roads, education and other services aimed at putting poorer parts of the state on par with prosperous areas such as Johnson County.
Fewer state dollars could put more pressure on local governments, especially school districts, to cut services or raise property taxes.
But Derek Sontag, state director of Americans for Prosperity, which has flooded several races with campaign ads aimed at ousting moderate senators, said limited government doesn’t mean letting core services suffer. For example, he said, Kansas has invested heavily in its roads and highways in recent years and should focus on maintaining them.
"Just building roads and highways doesn’t lead to a great influx of economic activity," he said. "It really comes down to government spending and spending it efficiently.”
The state should get a good indication of whether Brownback can achieve such changes by midnight Aug. 7, after primary votes are counted. Then, the state should know which faction of Republicans is likely to have the 21 votes needed to push its policies through the 40-member Senate.
Conservative Republicans already control the House, governor’s office and most statewide political positions. The Senate has 32 Republicans and eight Democrats, but the power struggle among Republicans most likely comes down to whether two or three seats change hands to candidates more supportive of Brownback’s vision.
To that end, the Kansas and Wichita chamber political action committees and other groups have targeted at least eight senators, including Dick Kelsey, Carolyn McGinn and Jean Schodorf in Wichita.
Kansans’ decision to maintain or oust a moderate-controlled Senate is, in many ways, a referendum on Brownback’s performance since he was elected in 2010 — and on where they believe he will take the state next.
“That’s what elections are all about,” Aistrup said. “Do people support that vision? And if they do, they get the government they voted for.”
Brownback did not agree to an interview request from The Eagle. His office said it couldn’t comment on “what-if” scenarios.
But David Kensinger, chairman of the governor’s policy organization, Road Map Solutions, said Kansas has lost private-sector jobs while government grew over the past decade. He said smaller government equals more jobs.
"The argument is between those who want to grow the government and those who want to grow the economy," he said.
Already, Brownback has scored a series of victories for constituents with similar, tea-party-style ideals: income tax cuts for some businesses, lower income tax rates for individuals, spending cuts, abortion restrictions and, though still pending, Medicaid reforms, to name a few.
But his vision is far from complete.
For a hint of what could be next, take a look at his plans that fell short just a few months ago as lawmakers battled in Topeka over drastic changes to the tax code, redistricting, school finance and a pile-up of other reforms.
On education, Brownback says the current school funding system is broken.
Late last year, his administration unveiled a plan to get rid of the current school funding formula that gives districts with many poor or language-challenged kids extra money. Instead, he proposed that districts with less property tax revenue would get “equalization” payments to ensure they don’t fall behind richer districts.
The plan, which fell apart early in the session with criticism from Democrats and Republicans, would have let school boards take unlimited property tax increase proposals to voters. That plan could be a boon for rich areas that can stomach tax increases but has the potential to let rich districts get ahead of poor ones where voters aren’t supportive of increases for schools.
When he signed the income tax cut bill earlier this year, Brownback said he would continue to properly fund education. But he has said any increase in spending must come with reforms aimed at putting more money in classrooms and increasing the performance of fourth-grade reading proficiency.
He vetoed $480,000 in performance-based mentoring bonuses.
Meanwhile, the state is awaiting a decision by state judges on whether schools receive adequate funding.
Courts are another area Brownback’s administration has targeted. Under a plan pushed earlier this year, the governor could get more say about which judges are on the Court of Appeals. A similar effort could emerge for appointments to the state Supreme Court.
In February, the Senate voted 22-17 to reject SB 83, which would have let the governor select appellate court judges who would be confirmed by the Senate, similar to how Supreme Court justices are appointed in Washington, D.C.
Opponents say the proposal would effectively give the governor control over another branch of government by opening the judicial system to political influence. Now, a nine-member nominating commission of lawyers and gubernatorial appointees screens and selects three candidates for the governor to pick from.
Conservatives say that allows too much room for activist judges to make it to the bench. Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, who led the charge for a change, called it “anti-democratic” to have a commission nominate judges instead of officials elected by Kansas voters.
Although Brownback signed a historic tax cut bill this year, it’s likely that he and his conservative peers will closely monitor its progress while looking for ways to further reduce taxes.
For example, Brownback’s tax plan originally sought to cap the growth of state spending. It also sought to eliminate special credits and deductions while softening the blow to those who use them by lowering rates.
Moderates, including Senate leaders, say Brownback would try for a taxpayer bill of rights, also called TABOR, that would require voter approval to raise taxes. It also would say governments can’t spend revenue that grows faster than inflation and population growth, instead refunding any excess tax collections to taxpayers.
Sontag said his organization would continue to push for spending constraints.
For too many years, spending has outpaced population growth and inflation, he said.
“Just because revenue increases 7 percent doesn’t mean you should go out and spend it,” he said.
His organization, which often shares Brownback’s opinions on spending and taxes, would like to see spending tied to population and inflation, which is the philosophical foundation of TABOR. The organization also hopes to see legislation that requires state agencies to build their budgets from scratch at least every two years in an effort to help find ways to save money.
The practice, called zero-based budgeting, is the only way for agencies and lawmakers to get a handle on where money is being spent and find ways to save, he said.
“Revenue that isn’t needed by government should be sent back to taxpayers,” Sontag said.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, who has led the Senate moderates, said he also favors controlled spending. But he added that after years of contracted spending on education and other government services, putting an artificial cap on government spending would be a mistake.
He notes that Medicaid spending and the state’s legal obligations to its pension system already account for more than 3 percent annual growth. Locking down the state’s growth of spending would force the state to make cuts.
“It’s been a struggle for us to maintain education funding. In fact it’s gone down,” he said. “I’m afraid that would be a fairly low priority for an ultra-conservative Senate.”
Morris said too many teachers have told him they’re spending their own money on school supplies, a small, but meaningful, sign that education funding needs to change.
“They’re willing to do that because they believe in what they’re doing,” he said. “But it’s still tough when they’re doing that out of their own pockets. That’s just a small impact of those trickle-down effects of education cuts.
He also blamed at least part of the hours-long lines people are experiencing at local Department of Motor Vehicles offices on reduced state spending.
“That’s a direct result of cutbacks we’ve had,” Morris said.
The problem is also tied to the state’s switch-over to a new $40 million DMV computer system that is paid for with a $4 fee added to vehicle registrations.
Morris, who faces a challenge from Rep. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, considers himself and his allies in the Senate as traditional Republicans — not simply moderate or conservative.
He said he couldn’t predict the election’s outcome. But he said he hopes that Kansas exceeds its typical low turnout — roughly 25 percent — in the primary this year.
“It’s absolutely a key election for the heart and soul of the state,” he said.