Of governors and their (fleeting) standing

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In a recent column for the Salina Journal, Ed

Flentje said that Gov. Sam Brownback has lost

much of his authenticity.

Flentje, an economist and professor emeritus at

Wichita State University, notes that the governor’s

Glide Path to Zero – his phase-out of state income

taxes – is a simmering disaster. He and other critics

believe the governor’s Glide Path is a monumental

tax policy failure that, so far, has produced

state deficit spending, a depleted budget, soaring

state debt and a downgrade of state credit by both

Moody’s and Standard and Poor. The Glide Path

has also brought higher sales and property taxes

and a weakened state economy; in addition, our

schools are woefully underfunded, a matter that

has landed the state again in court. Monumental

gaps in higher education funding have forced historic

tuition increases and threatened the standing

of our state university system.

At each misstep and each failure, Flentje says,

the governor has refused to admit the mistake.

Instead, he has allowed his budget director to take

the fall for a $2 billion error in legislative budget

deliberations. When the country’s two most

respected bond rating agencies downgraded the

state’s bond ratings, the governor smugly declared

that the agencies were wrong, not he. When state

tax revenues fell more than $700 million and

billion-dollar budget deficits loomed in most outyear

forecasts, Brownback declined to re-think his

Glide Path to Zero. Instead, he blamed President

Obama for the state’s anemic fiscal posture.

“Effective leaders build trust through actions

that show authenticity and accountability,” Flentje

wrote. “That trust enhances leadership and allows

followers to forgive and forget missteps along

the way.” Instead, Flentje said, the governor has

blamed others, including the president, for his own

The governor’s actions “have eroded his authenticity,”

said Flentje. Put another way, a governor

who can’t own up to his mistakes isn’t much of a

leader, and even less of a governor.

Flentje’s critique is the first to focus on the

governor’s corroded accountability. Until now,

criticism has centered on wrong-headed policy

flaws – the idiocy in adding Kansas to the ranks of

states without an income tax, with no viable source

to fill the revenue gap; atop this is the governor’s

socio-political “experiment” that seeks to clear-cut

state education, the courts, social services, transportation

and mental health agencies to reduce

the cost of government and “privatize” public

services. A lack of government, then, is cheaper

than government.

Really?

A governor’s loss of credibility, of authenticity,

is not itself unique. It’s happened before, but in

less dramatic circumstances and at far less consequence.

In the past, some Kansas governors who

lost their authenticity got it back. Others didn’t.

Here are some stories among recent missteps:

*

IN THE LATE 1980s, Kansas and Gov. Mike

Hayden were awash in a perfect storm: a clash of

federal tax reform, a constitutional amendment

ordering statewide property reappraisal, and a flaw

in the state’s public school finance formula.

At the time, allotment of state aid to schools centered

on a formula that determined the wealth of a

school district; property values comprised about

75 percent of district wealth and personal income,

25 percent. Districts high in wealth received far

less aid than poorer districts.

Recent federal tax cuts had exposed more

Kansas income to state taxation. At the same time,

property reappraisal (1989) turned the traditional

school finance formula on its head. Suddenly,

income – and not property values – dominated the

formula for wealth in a school district. Against a

formula that had penalized higher income regions,

scores of Kansas school districts faced dramatic

losses in state aid – and soaring property taxes –

without revision of the formula.

By late 1989, protests of historic property tax

increases swept across Kansas. The crowds at

courthouses were large and angry. Hayden, frustrated

and at loose ends, demanded that a special

two-day session of the Legislature deal with the

issue. It would be Hayden’s second special session

in two years; the first, in 1987, came from

his hasty attempt to order a multi-billion dollar

highway improvements program. It collapsed in

frustration after four days.

For the special session on property taxes in early

December 1989, lawmakers could not be expected,

in 48 hours, to rewrite a century of Kansas tax

law. This special session also adjourned in futility.

Although lawmakers later patched up several

temporary resolutions of school finance, Hayden

became known, somewhat unfairly, as “Tax Hike

Mike.”

*

A DECADE later, Gov. Bill Graves, with more

than a year left in his second term as governor,

announced that he had accepted a job in

Washington as chief lobbyist for the American

Trucking Association; his new salary, $500,000

yearly plus benefits. Thus, Graves’s final year

as governor was lackluster; he seemed mostly to

wander the Capitol halls, coffee cup in hand, looking

for conversation. Not long after his trucking

announcement, we found him alone in an aisle

at J.M. Bauersfeld’s, a popular supermarket in

Topeka. We asked the governor why he was there.

“I need the practice,” he said. We doubted that, but

grinned with him anyway. Here was a governor

with nothing but time on his hands. Many people

by then were as bored with his job as he was.

*

FOR A different kind of loss, we add the final

year of Democrat Kathleen Sebelius as governor.

She had been wildly popular, reelected in 2006,

and was serving the second year of her second

term; then, in 2008, she began to campaign for

Sen. Barack Obama’s Democratic nomination for

president. Not long before, prominent office holders

who chose sides during presidential primaries

took a serious risk. They were usually gambling

their careers for a chance at greater prestige or

power; a winning candidate would, they hoped,

remember they had been there from the start.

For the governor, those long months of a national

election through an inauguration were months

of anticipation, of expectation and hope, of desire

and ambition. Kathleen Sebelius at times seemed

adrift, removed, even distracted. Her man had

won. She was leaving, everyone knew it, no one

would say it. Sebelius’s authority and authenticity,

so hard-won in the early years, built on her

campaigns against the hidebound sleaze of an

insurance department and the work of reform in

her early years as governor – all were gone in a

presidential moment. At first, Secretary of Health

and Human Services, then snagged in the complicated

launch of a national health care program, and

finally sacrificed to the petty savagery of a family

friend, Sen. Pat Roberts, and the blind zealotry of

a Tea Party mob.

*

THESE TIDBITS are a tame history of the slippage

that has threatened governors’ authority and credibility.

But the corrosion of trust and legitimacy in

the Brownback years is anything but tame.

No governor before has insisted on measures to

dismantle a government and, incredibly, replace it

with nothing – nothing that is, but a Glide Path to

Zero, a policy to eliminate the state income tax,

a chief component of government finance, and to

dissolve the agencies that once offered Kansans

hope for better health, transportation, education

and social welfare.

The sun may be shining in Kansas, as the governor

grins in his campaign commercial, but it’s winter-

dark along the Glide Path, a weedy little trail

over barren and unpromising landscapes, a rocky

path descending to Zero, where echo answers

nothing, a place of no promise but no taxes and no

government. A nothing place for nobody.

– JOHN MARSHALL

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