Politics & Government

Brownback: Former aide gained no advantage from seeing budget draft early

Gov. Sam Brownback answers questions Thursday in Topeka.
Gov. Sam Brownback answers questions Thursday in Topeka. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday that he does not think his former chief of staff gained an advantage by learning about a proposed tobacco tax ahead of the general public.

But he also said he wished his former aide weren’t lobbying for a tobacco company against a proposed tax that is crucial to his budget plan.

The Eagle reported Sunday that Brownback’s former chief of staff, David Kensinger, has represented Reynolds American, the second biggest tobacco company in the nation, in lobbying against a proposed $1.50 tax increase on cigarettes. The tax increase is a major piece of Brownback’s plan to balance the state budget.

Kensinger was among a select group of people who received a draft of the governor’s budget in a private e-mail from Budget Director Shawn Sullivan on Dec. 23, three weeks before it was unveiled to the general public.

He registered as a lobbyist for Reynolds six weeks later.

Brownback was asked by reporters whether Kensinger’s lobbying for Reynolds was evidence that his administration shouldn’t have shared the budget with lobbyists before it shared with lawmakers.

“Then I guess I don’t share it with anybody other than maybe my wife,” Brownback joked.

“I don’t think it gives him an advantage,” Brownback said. “I hope we win this discussion … I think it would be a good public health issue if the state of Kansas raises its cigarette taxes.”

Brownback said he was unsure of “who knew what when.”

Kensinger registered as a lobbyist with Reynolds after the budget became public. Last week he would not answer questions about when his discussions with the company began and whether his knowledge of the tax proposal played a role in him landing the lobbying contract.

Reynolds also did not respond to requests for comment.

“I wish he wasn’t lobbying for that group, but he’s free to do what he is doing and we’ll see how the overall plan comes out,” Brownback said at a news conference Thursday, his first of the legislative session in which he responded to questions on a wide range of topics.

Brownback defended the decision to consult Kensinger and others who he considers knowledgeable on the budget.

“What I try to do is get as much input from people as possible hoping that you avoid as many problems,” Brownback said. “I’ve tried to operate most of my public career in trying to solicit lots of input.”

He said the alternative would be to keep discussions only within the administration, which would result in a limited perspective. “Because then you guys will criticize and say why didn’t you see this problem or see that problem.”

Brownback said he came up with the idea for the tobacco tax after consulting with the University of Kansas Cancer Center. “Maybe they had a head start more than anyone else,” he said.

Brownback proposed in January raising the state tax on a pack of cigarettes to $2.29 from the current $.79 and raising the wholesale tax on tobacco products to 25 percent from the current 10 percent. The two changes are projected to generate $80.8 million for the state next year.

The proposals have proven unpopular with some lawmakers, but the budget passed by the Senate last week would not be projected to balance without these taxes.

“Well, I’m not too excited about them,” Brownback said when asked what his administration was doing to promote the policies. “Somebody was complaining that we don’t seem to be pushing tax increases. Well, I’m not excited about that. But what happens in this process…you get your budget set and then you figure out what can we do, trying to stay as pro-growth oriented as we can, trying to have the revenues we need to meet the budget that the Legislature wants.”

“I’m sure if everybody could do it, we’d do all the budget with no taxes,” Brownback said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.