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
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
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