Politics & Government

Brownback-Wagle relationship appears on the mend, but will it last?


Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback meets with legislative leaders, including Senate President Susan Wagle, in 2015.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback meets with legislative leaders, including Senate President Susan Wagle, in 2015. File photo

Gov. Sam Brownback and Senate President Susan Wagle – once natural allies supporting tax cuts and smaller government – have frequently been on opposite sides in the past year, trading volleys over the state’s financial problems.

In December, Wagle, R-Wichita, said lawmakers were concerned that Brownback was looking for a “ticket to D.C.” and said she was concerned that the governor would not offer a budget with a long-term structural fix.

In February, Brownback said one tax plan put forward by Wagle “needlessly harms the real people that serve as the lifeblood of Kansas.”

But now the strained relationship between the two high-ranking Republican officials shows signs of mending.

How well the two work together could affect what gets done in the Statehouse, and how quickly. Lawmakers will return to work May 1 with key issues unresolved: creating a new way to fund public schools; finding a way to pay for it; and balancing the budget.

Kansas faces budget shortfalls of around $1 billion over the next two years, and lawmakers face a June 30 deadline from the state Supreme Court to develop a new education funding plan.

Clashing views

Wagle and Brownback have sparred several times this year. Primarily, they have clashed over the governor’s original tax and budget proposal, which Wagle has said relied too much on one-time revenue sources and didn’t structurally balance the budget. Brownback said a tax plan developed by the Senate with Wagle’s blessing “punishes the middle class.”

Wagle’s frustrations with the governor seemed to peak after a meeting with Senate Republicans in early March.

The governor’s spokeswoman had released another statement that week criticizing the Senate president by name. This one came after Wagle called on the governor to use his executive power, known as allotments, to cut the budget to help mend the state’s financial woes.

The news release from Brownback’s office said cutting spending for schools “would be unwise.”

“I was surprised at being named in press releases from their office,” Wagle said. “Our meetings with the governor are with the leadership team. And I continually am named in press releases from them.”

“We’ve all been united in asking the governor to allot,” Wagle said of Republican legislative leaders.

Brownback decided not to cut the budget himself and continued to emphasize that a solution for the shortfall should be decided by the Legislature.

He also vetoed a tax increase passed with bipartisan support that would have raised more than $1 billion for the state over two years.

“Above all else, we must remember that tax dollars do not belong to the government. They belong to the families, individuals, and job-creators who earn a paycheck,” Brownback said in rejecting the bill.

A seismic shift

Fast forward to last week. Wagle and Brownback were back on the same page on an issue, and even jointly fought a losing battle.

Brownback and Wagle both backed a proposal that would have set a single tax rate for all personal income and eliminated tax exemptions for certain business income favored by the governor.

The Senate overwhelmingly rejected the plan.

But afterward, Brownback and Wagle praised the other.

Wagle went out of her way to thank the governor for his willingness to compromise on what a new tax policy will look like. During a meeting with Senate Republicans, she read from a news release Brownback’s office had sent in support of the flat tax plan.

Leading Republicans also said they were aiming to get 21 votes, the exact amount needed to pass a bill, rather than trying to get the 27 votes needed to override Brownback’s veto.

That was a seismic shift from earlier this year, when Wagle said lawmakers probably would need veto-proof majorities to pass a tax increase.

“I think that (Brownback) softening his position will help us tremendously,” Wagle said after the flat tax bill failed to pass.

At a news conference late last week, Brownback spoke about Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park.

“I’m glad the president and Sen. Denning were willing to move forward with it,” Brownback said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, says Brownback and Wagle were never actually too far apart.

Wagle has cast several votes effectively siding with the governor – and against the wishes of some Senate Republicans.

“I think she’s very much on Sam Brownback’s side. I’ve told her that,” Hensley said.

Wagle voted against overriding Brownback’s veto of House Bill 2178, which would have raised personal income tax rates and added a third bracket for higher-income earners. She had urged Brownback to allow the bill to become law, however.

On Medicaid expansion, Wagle voted against a plan that was later vetoed by Brownback. And she voted in favor of the flat tax.

Beyond party, ideology

Public disputes between leaders within the same party can happen, and factors like future ambitions and personality play a role, said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University.

“In more normal times, one of the things that casual observers can kind of forget is there’s more going on in the state legislature and presidency than just party and ideology,” Smith said.

Wagle’s predecessor said he doesn’t think camaraderie between the two leading Republicans will continue.

The next time Brownback faces a choice about significant legislation, tensions may rise again, said Stephen Morris, a moderate Republican and former Senate president who was ousted by a conservative primary challenger in 2012.

“I’d certainly like to see Brownback quit worrying about his ego and try to do what’s best for the state, and the same thing with her,” Morris said.

Although Wagle and Brownback were united on a flat tax, the idea doesn’t appear to have much traction in the Legislature. It’s difficult to know whether the two will be able to find common ground on another proposal, or whether the sparring will begin again.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman