The 2016 election could be a tough one for some Kansas lawmakers hoping to return to the Statehouse.
Polls, editorials and reader comments on news websites indicate that voters are paying attention to what’s happening in Topeka, and many don’t like what they’re seeing.
They’re frustrated by the inability of Gov. Sam Brownback and legislators to solve persistent budget problems that have triggered a downgrade in the state’s credit rating, delayed major highway projects and forced cuts in university budgets and reimbursements to health care providers who participate in KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program.
Some Kansas voters are also embarrassed. The budget problems and culture-war debates over welfare restrictions, guns and a dress code for women working in or visiting the Statehouse have made the state a popular punching bag for comedians and television talk show hosts.
The level of dissatisfaction was reflected in a poll released last week that ranked Gov. Sam Brownback the least popular governor in the nation.
The Morning Consult poll, for which 66,000 voters nationwide and 650 in Kansas were surveyed, showed Brownback with a 26 percent job approval rating, six percentage points below Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who has come under withering criticism for his handling of the water crisis in Flint.
The Brownback Effect
Practically, the poll numbers may not mean much to Brownback, who won a narrow re-election victory two years ago and isn’t on the 2016 ballot. But they could signal trouble for legislative incumbents who supported the 2012 income tax cuts, which many believe are largely responsible for the budget mess.
Sen. Forrest Knox, a conservative Republican from Altoona, recently was on the receiving end of some voter anger. At a “listening tour” stop in Gridley, a small ranching and farming community in southeast Kansas, he was peppered with questions about the budget problems and his support of the tax cuts.
Jim Ochs, a rancher and retired public school principal, listened politely as Knox talked about the spending cuts and bookkeeping “gimmicks” being used to patch holes in the budget created by continuing revenue shortfalls.
Several minutes in, Ochs interrupted.
“The people of Kansas are dissatisfied with our governor, and we’re not happy with what’s going on,” he said. “We’re angry and I think you’re sensing that.”
When Knox attempted to respond, Ochs cut him off.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “Let me vent and maybe I’ll leave here feeling better.”
After the meeting, Ochs, a lifelong Republican, said he wanted Knox to understand why he was upset about the tax cuts, the persistent budget problems and what he called the “attack on public education.”
“I don’t understand why our legislators aren’t listening,” he said. “They seem to be getting different feedback from these meetings than what I hear when I talk to people. Truthfully, I haven’t talked to one person who believes that Governor Brownback is doing a good job. I’m not exaggerating.”
Voters at recent legislative briefings in Topeka and Overland Park expressed similar concerns.
“At some point it’s going to get bad enough that, yeah, we’ll throw the bums out,” said Jim Frost, a moderate Republican who attended a legislative coffee at the Johnson County Library in Overland Park the Saturday after lawmakers adjourned without balancing the budget.
Jan Mach, a Topeka Democrat who attended a legislative event at the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library, said she was “beyond angry” about the income tax cuts and the damage the resulting revenue declines are doing to public schools and universities. Mach scoffed at Brownback’s claim that the tax cuts will jump-start the Kansas economy if given time to work.
“What business or corporation would move to Kansas just on the basis of low taxes when there is crumbling infrastructure and poor schools?” she asked.
In an interview after the Gridley meeting, Knox agreed that voters seem more agitated this year. If that persists, he said, it could threaten the majorities that conservative Republicans now hold in both the House and Senate.
“That is the question before us,” Knox said. “The people of Kansas will decide the direction we go: Whether we continue down (the path of) reining in the unsustainable growth in state government, making our state attractive to business, or whether we go back to a faith in government and thinking that we can grow government and solve all of our problems.”
Bruce Givens, of El Dorado, an assistant director of the Butler County Special Education Cooperative, has filed to run against Knox in the Republican primary.
Despite the grilling he got in Gridley, Knox said he doesn’t think that voters will punish him for supporting both the 2012 income tax cuts and large increases in sales and tobacco taxes passed in the final hours of the marathon 2015 session.
“If we can communicate reality and the truth, we being the conservative side, I think we’re fine,” Knox said.” “I think my average constituent is solid with my point of view.”
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Republican from Overland Park, said she wants end to the dysfunctional politics that has put the state in an unwelcome national spotlight.
Clayton, one of several moderate Republicans who bested conservative challengers in the 2014 primary, said Kansas did better when it was considered a boring but stable and safe place to live, work and raise a family.
“If I could make a whole campaign theme, I’d say, ‘Let’s return to boring,’” she said. “It’s not really going to get people out to the polls. But honestly, we need to stay off the news,” she said. “We need to stay in the black. We need government to be just so functional that it rolls along without you guys even knowing that we’re there.”
Noting that a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans almost had the votes to reject the budget proposed by Brownback and legislative leaders, Clayton said changes in a handful of seats could shift the balance of power in the Legislature.
Jim McClean is a reporter with Heartland Health Monitor based at KHI News Service in Topeka, Kansas.