Politics & Government

Gov. Sam Brownback focuses on values, social issues as he takes oath of office

Gov. Sam Brownback shakes hands as he leaves the Kansas House chambers Monday afternoon after his inauguration as governor of Kansas for a second term.(Jan. 12, 2015)
Gov. Sam Brownback shakes hands as he leaves the Kansas House chambers Monday afternoon after his inauguration as governor of Kansas for a second term.(Jan. 12, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback highlighted what he called “the crisis of the family” Monday as he took the oath of office for his second term as governor before a packed chamber in the Kansas House.

The biggest challenges facing the state are cultural and moral, he said.

But he also acknowledged that many people in Kansas are struggling economically, which he blamed on “big government.”

“There have been difficulties. Too many people have not progressed in recent years, in many cases held back by an economy that is growing too slowly or an overly paternalistic big government,” he said.

Brownback begins his second term as the state faces a projected $648 million deficit for the 2016 fiscal year. His chief of staff has said the governor will increase tax revenue and cut spending to address the deficit. Brownback will unveil his budget proposal on Friday, the day after he delivers his State of the State address.

On Monday, he focused on family values and social issues, such as abortion.

“If we are honest, we have to admit there is a crisis of the family in our country. In my view, this is a principle issue that must be addressed for us to move forward,” Brownback said.

“That starts by recognizing that everybody is a beautiful somebody. Our culture is at its best when we protect and encourage the weakest,” he said. “Every life, at every stage, in every place has a dignity beyond our imagining. Every human – especially the most vulnerable, the unborn, the infirm, those ravaged by age and those desperate in despair – should be protected in law, loved and told repeatedly of their incredible beauty and worth.”

Brownback cited the example set by his parents, Bob and Nancy, whom he called part of “the sacrificial generation,” and said that the renewal of the nation depended upon strengthening the family structure.

The speech at times had the tone of a sermon. Brownback said the state’s seal, which includes the image of a farmer tilling a field as American Indians hunt buffalo before a rising sun, provided a guide of how to deal with modern-day challenges.

“The seal visually shows us the path forward. It is one of work as a farmer, of heart as a pioneer, of a Native American hunter’s courage. It is a warm and healthy family as shown by the home,” Brownback said. “And shining down on all of us, the glory of God.”

Support, criticism for speech’s focus

The speech’s focus on social issues drew mixed reactions.

“That’s all that counts is family, strengthening families. And then that’ll take care of the economy and all the social challenges, won’t it?” said Dave DePue, director of the Capitol Commission, a faith-based organization, who prays with Brownback regularly.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, also appreciated the governor’s remarks.

“I thought it was compelling. As a matter of fact, I thought it addressed the areas, you know, that we need to be focused on as a state,” Suellentrop said. “We need to maintain the effort to support the family as the best system to make sure that everybody’s got an opportunity.”

Democrats were less impressed with the governor’s comments.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, pointed out that while the governor spoke of helping the infirm, he has opposed expanding Medicaid, and while he talked about the need to address poverty, his actions haven’t always reflected that.

“I wanted to say, ‘Governor, do you realize that 348,000 Kansas are uninsured today? Between 100,000 and 150,000 of them could have insurance if we expand Medicaid,’ ” Ward said. “ ‘Governor, do you realize that one in five children are in poverty right now under your watch, and you have cut services that provide food to hungry children? That would help families in Kansas. I mean, there are a number of things you can do to help families in Kansas.’ ”

Joan Wagnon, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said the governor’s call for strong families doesn’t extend to all families, such as those made up of same-sex couples.

“He says, ‘We have to admit there is a crisis of the family in our country,’ yet he defines family in such ways as to exclude same sex families and single parent families,” Wagnon said in an e-mailed statement.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, found the governor’s focus on social issues strange in the face of the fiscal challenges facing the state.

“The issue facing this Legislature is how do we fund the basic services of state government because we’ve cut revenues to the absolute bone,” Carmichael said. “And to try to say that by focusing on social issues and the like that will somehow miraculously solve the budget deficit the governor’s created, I don’t understand it.”

Ceremony draws on western heritage

The inauguration, initially scheduled to take place outside the Capitol, was moved indoors because of freezing wind chills.

“The only ones I’ve seen (before) have been outdoors, so at least I’m sitting in a soft seat and I’m warm,” House Speaker Ray Merrick said with a laugh. “It’s the middle of January in Kansas – should it be outside or inside?”

Merrick, R-Stilwell, said he thought the ceremony reflected the state’s culture and heritage. It featured a reading of “Cowboy Poem” by Ron Wilson, the state’s self-described “poet lariat.” It also included a rendition of “Home on the Range,” the official state song, performed by the Thomas Prep-Marian High School Choir.

“In Kansas, early pioneers came west to build a nation, now we reflect on all those years for this inauguration,” Wilson’s poem began. The poem included quips about Amelia Earhart, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bob Dole and other Kansas icons.

“Cowboy poetry’s my favorite. We don’t get to hear a lot of poetry at all anymore. Cowboy poetry’s fun,” said Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco.

At one point during his speech, Brownback looked to the House gallery to recognize U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Dodge City, with whom he had served in the U.S. Senate. But Roberts wasn’t there.

A spokesman for Roberts later clarified that the senator, who attended Saturday’s inaugural ball, had to return to Washington for a cloture vote on the Keystone pipeline and that flight schedules did not allow him to attend both events.

The inauguration comes as a federal grand jury is investigating Brownback’s campaign finances. Carol Williams, the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, is scheduled to testify Wednesday about loans made to the campaign. The only loans the campaign received were from Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.

The governor’s office has called the investigation without merit.

Monday also marked the start of the 2015 legislative session, with newly elected legislators sworn in later that afternoon. It is the first time since 1966 that Kansas has not had at least one woman in a statewide elected office, as Republican Ken Selzer replaced Sandy Praeger as insurance commissioner.

Related link: Listen to live proceedings

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