Politics & Government

More tension between Brownback, lawmakers on financial issues this session

Gov. Sam Brownback comments on tension with lawmakers

Brownback says lawmakers are frustrated that revenue estimates haven't been met and that he shares their frustration. He defends his administration's deal with Bank of America as being within the law. (Feb. 25, 2016)
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Brownback says lawmakers are frustrated that revenue estimates haven't been met and that he shares their frustration. He defends his administration's deal with Bank of America as being within the law. (Feb. 25, 2016)

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has suffered several political setbacks this legislative session despite strong majorities for his party in the House and Senate.

Some lawmakers say they’re concerned about the governor’s financial management of the state and what they see as attempts to skirt legislative oversight.

“I’m frustrated with a capital F,” said Sen. Jim Denning, a conservative Republican from Overland Park who has emerged as a vocal critic of the governor on fiscal issues.

I’m frustrated with a capital F.

Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park

Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, disagreed that Brownback’s relationship with the Legislature has become strained.

“There’s always a little tension between the Legislature and a governor, but I don’t think that it’s anything that is particularly damaging or something I would make a big deal out of,” Melcher said. “I haven’t found it to be something that weighs heavily on my mind.”

There’s always a little tension between the Legislature and a governor.

Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood

This week 161 lawmakers – a veto-proof majority – voted to kill a $20 million deal Brownback’s administration had struck with Bank of America to finance the construction of a new energy center for state office buildings in Topeka, a stunning rebuke spearheaded by Republican leaders.

It was not the first time lawmakers have dealt a symbolic blow to the administration this session. They also:

▪ Included a budget provision preventing Brownback from privatizing state mental hospitals without legislative approval. Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, said the administration had intentionally mismanaged the hospitals to justify privatizing them.

▪ Capped the amount of money the state can borrow.

▪ Blocked the governor from using sales tax revenue bonds to lure the American Royal competitions from Kansas City, Mo., to Kansas.

Denning said last year’s marathon tax debate, when Brownback threatened to veto any bill that rolled back an income tax exemption for some business owners, “was a game-changer for a lot of us.”

“That’s where we started wondering, why are we continuing down this path?” said Denning, who wanted to put business owners back on income tax rolls.

Under Brownback, the state has moved away from income taxes, which were cut in 2012, to a greater reliance on sales taxes, which were raised last year to cover a budget gap. Even so, the state has continued to fall short of revenue expectations and faced shortfalls this year.

Brownback acknowledged that tension from last year’s budget debate hasn’t gone away. “Last year’s budget was very hard. It was hard on everybody,” he said Thursday at a wide-ranging news conference.

He blamed this partially on the state’s failure to meet revenue estimates. “I think that’s very frustrating to everyone. And it’s certainly very frustrating to me,” he said.

‘Difficult problems’

Brownback said he is working to fix some problems – such as understaffing in state hospitals or the poor condition of state office buildings – that had been neglected by previous administrations.

“We’re dealing with these problems and these are meddlesome, difficult problems,” he said.

On the energy center deal, Brownback pushed back against some lawmakers who questioned the legality of the agreement, which was made without legislative approval.

“You can disagree with our policies if you want to, but we have followed the law,” Brownback said.

You can disagree with our policies if you want to, but we have followed the law.

Gov. Sam Brownback, on the Legislature’s rejection of a financing agreement for a new state power plant

The governor said the Bank of America deal was reviewed by multiple attorneys. “We had authority to do this, but the bids came in higher than people thought they would,” he said.

Asked if he needed to mend fences with lawmakers, Brownback pointed to the budget lawmakers passed in the first two months of the legislative session as proof that they’re working well together on big issues.

STAR Bonds

But the budget also includes provisions to curtail the administration, including the one that blocks Brownback from using sales tax revenue bonds to bring the American Royal to Kansas.

The STAR Bonds program enables municipalities to use sales tax revenue to pay off bonds used to finance construction of a development project. Lawmakers of both parties have called for stricter oversight and more transparency in the program.

Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, called the American Royal proposal “on the edge” of the governor’s authority.

“Gosh. When sales tax revenues are already below estimates and the governor and his secretary of commerce are getting ready to give away 42 million more dollars, that has to make you wonder,” said Hutton, who also differed with the governor on tax policy last year. “I mean, what are they thinking?”

Brownback voiced strong opposition to the STAR Bonds restriction, which would only apply to Wyandotte County, where he wants to locate the American Royal. He called this unfair, but said he hadn’t yet decided whether to veto it.

Brownback has been weighing a veto of the STAR bonds provision, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. He said he had “been asked by the governor’s people whether the Democrats would help to sustain his veto if he vetoes that particular provision.”

This would be a rare move for a governor who said in 2011 that he wanted to pass a budget without any Democratic votes.

It requires a two-thirds majority to override a veto. Brownback would need to convince either 14 senators or 42 House members to vote against a veto override if he chooses to veto the provision. Support from the Senate’s eight Democrats could be valuable in that scenario.

“It’s pretty significant,” Hensley said. “I don’t recall that he’s ever really wanted my help any time in the last six years.”

I don’t recall that he’s ever really wanted my help any time in the last six years.

Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who said he had been asked by the administration whether Democrats would help sustain a Brownback veto if the governor decides to issue one on a STAR bonds provision

Hensley said he would have to discuss the matter with his caucus and noted that two members are from Wyandotte County.

Denning said a Brownback veto on the STAR bonds provision “would be nuclear. … I can’t think of a single legislator that doesn’t want some legislative oversight in STAR bonds reforms.”

Brownback sought reconciliation with lawmakers on the issue, saying they “are doing their job” by “looking in more deeply to this process.”

“We’ll work with them,” he said. “We’ve got ideas, too, on how they ought to reform that STAR bonds process.”

Legislature’s job

Hutton, who helped lead efforts to untangle the state from the power plant deal, said it’s the Legislature’s job to scrutinize the governor and probe for deficiencies in his administration. He said the fact that Republican lawmakers are doing that to a governor from their own party shows the system is working.

“The Legislature is an independent body. There was a lot of talk – and there still is – that this Legislature just falls in lockstep behind the governor,” Hutton said. “I don’t think that’s ever been the case. I just think it’s been more obvious that that’s not the case this year.”

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said some of the recent rebukes the Legislature has handed the governor have more to do with the upcoming election than oversight.

“The dirty secret is they haven’t forced the governor to change his policies. On the big stuff – block grants for schools, the tax loophole, budgets that slash and burn essential core services – they are all lockstep,” he said. “What they’re doing is, on the fringes, slapping the governor. … I think it’s more about the election. I think the governor’s toxic.”

A November poll from the Morning Consult found Brownback to be the least popular governor in the nation with an approval rating of 26 percent. Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, said low poll numbers are “part of the reason that the governor’s clout has been diminished” this session.

“You don’t necessarily want to be seen as someone who is in the tank for Gov. Brownback,” Rackaway said. “So they have to position themselves strategically in ways that they’re still loyal to the party while at the same time making it very clear publicly that they’re not just doing what the governor tells them to do and executing their marching orders.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

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