Opinion Columns & Blogs

Power play has fractured trust

Close observers of state politics have witnessed in the current legislative session a display of raw political power without parallel in recent memory, as Gov. Sam Brownback has led his conservative coalition in wrestling control of state policy from moderate Republicans and Democrats. He has outmaneuvered and, for the most part, overpowered opposition.

Brownback has acted on his landslide election, the second-largest gubernatorial vote in state history, as a mandate for change. The defeat of 12 incumbent House Democrats and the consequent election of mostly conservative House Republicans in 2010 handed his party the largest House majority (92-33) in more than half a century and gave Brownback and his coalition leverage over the entire legislative process.

To his credit, Brownback addressed long-ignored, critical state issues with far-reaching legislative proposals – in state finance, Medicaid, tax reform, public pensions and school finance. His restraints on spending have helped pull state finances out of the ditch. His Medicaid reforms envision sizable savings and are under way. In line with his plan, state income taxes are being cut and eliminated completely for some taxpayers. His proposal on pensions has prodded legislative action, not as he preferred but agreeable to him. His school finance plan, however, has largely stalled.

Brownback has also forcefully wielded executive authority, dominating spending decisions through budgetary actions and reshaping state administration with reorganization orders. He is overhauling Medicaid contracting through gubernatorial command. Key personnel changes have assured that his agenda moves forward.

As a result of their aggressive actions, Brownback and his coalition will own the changes in state government and be accountable for their political consequences.

Budgetary reductions have eroded support among advocates for the arts, public broadcasting and school funding, for example. More than 300,000 Medicaid beneficiaries and their families will be living with uncertainty as a universal managed-care plan is implemented. More than 260,000 state and local government employees and retirees will be assessing the personal impacts of restructured public pensions. Those concerned about future funding of public schools, social services and public higher education, among other state obligations, are wary of the reduction and possible elimination of state income taxes and the rosy economic projections on which cuts were based.

Some of the political costs of these changes are showing up in Brownback’s approval ratings, which have fallen from a high of 55 percent in January 2011 to 34 percent in April 2012. His approval dropped dramatically in this time frame among younger adults, ages 18-34 (from 57 to 23 percent), and among women (from 58 to 25 percent).

Politics is about building relationships, at least in normal times, and Brownback’s unyielding exercise of power has fractured trust that may have once existed between him and Republican moderates, both inside and outside the Legislature. Further, if the purge of Republican moderates from the Legislature fails, as history suggests it will, Brownback will have to live with these frayed relations for the balance of his term.

Effective governance requires attention to both the results of decision making and the process of decision making, and keeping the two in balance. The emerging conservative coalition has focused on results and left the political process in a state of disrepair.