Politics & Government

Analysis: Legislative leaders strikingly quiet about Brownback’s budget cuts

Speaker of the House Ray Merrick opens the 2016 legislative session in Topeka. His office has not commented on the cuts Gov. Sam Brownback made to the budget this past week.
Speaker of the House Ray Merrick opens the 2016 legislative session in Topeka. His office has not commented on the cuts Gov. Sam Brownback made to the budget this past week. File photo

When Gov. Sam Brownback’s office announced $97 million in budget cuts this past week, legislative leaders were remarkably quiet.

None of the Republican leadership offices released a statement to the media after the cuts were announced late Wednesday afternoon.

The Eagle sought comment from the offices of House Speaker Ray Merrick, Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, but received none. Attempts to reach the House and Senate budget chairmen by phone also were unsuccessful.

No other major media publications appear to have succeeded in getting comments from any of the legislative leaders either.

“It makes sense politically, because there’s nothing they can say that can make this sound better, so in that case, it is better to say nothing,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.

The budget passed by the Legislature earlier this month would not have balanced without additional cuts by Brownback.

Brownback left K-12 education funding untouched, in accordance with a proviso passed by the Legislature, but that meant deeper cuts in other areas.

The governor swept $185 million from the state’s highway fund, cut the state’s Medicaid program by $56 million and cut higher education by $31 million to fill in the budget hole left to him by lawmakers.

“Who wants to be associated with cuts to health care, money away from roads and probable tuition hikes?” Beatty said.

By saying nothing, Republican lawmakers are hoping that more blame gets heaped on the governor, he said.

“The budget bill itself was designed to put quite a bit of business between the cuts that were going to come and the Legislature. I mean, really, the main thing they wanted to be associated with is where cuts would not be, which was K-12,” Beatty said.

“But actually, the cuts are sort of so politically unpopular that they don’t even want to issue a statement saying, ‘Well, at least we protected K-12.’ They’d rather just say nothing,” he said. “They don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. They don’t want to be associated with these budget cuts, even though that’s the bill they sent him.”

It’s likely a preview of what Republicans’ strategies will be during the next six months as lawmakers from both the House and the Senate stand for re-election, Beatty said.

Democratic leaders said they aren’t going to let Republicans get away with that.

“I think Republican leadership decided to leave it to him (Brownback) because they didn’t want to get the blame in the election,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “Well, they’ve been too close to him for too many years to not take the blame.”

Kelly Arnold, the state chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, pushed back on the notion that legislative leaders are avoiding responsibility for the budget.

“This whole process is done in an open and transparent way through a committee system and through the Legislature. They obviously were very verbal in their hearings and during the session,” Arnold said. “With their work, the governor being the administrator of the state, they allowed him the flexibility to make the necessary adjustments where the administration saw fit.”

There were some exceptions to the silence strategy.

For example, Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, consented to a phone interview Wednesday evening.

Denning, the Senate’s budget vice chairman who is part of a small coalition of Republicans that tried unsuccessfully to roll back a tax exemption for business owners the past two sessions, spoke frankly about the cuts.

He said that cutting Medicaid, which accounts for 20 percent of the state’s general fund budget, was the only option after tapping the highway fund since the Legislature was unwilling to raise taxes and lawmakers wanted to leave K-12 unscathed.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

Related stories from Wichita Eagle