Fighting Trump's Tax Plan: How the Battle Against Conservative Republicans in Kansas Could Become a National Playbook

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Republican Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2017. Moderate Republicans in Kansas overrode Brownback's veto of a bill rolling back his 2012 tax cuts. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s radical tax cuts in 2012 represented a conservative’s dream. But for many in the state, the policy has been a nightmare.

Amid a fiscal crisis, moderate Republicans, Democrats and even some conservatives teamed up to roll back some of Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, overriding the governor’s veto Tuesday night.

Moderate Republicans rebelled against the ultra-conservative wing of the party in last summer’s GOP primary and now have a major legislative accomplishment to their name. Their success may have some moderate Republicans across the nation eyeing Kansas for a playbook on how to take on the Tea Party and the more conservative faction of the party. 

Brandi Fisher, the executive director of Mainstream Coalition, a moderate nonprofit, said she hopes other states and the federal government can learn from Kansas, especially considering the president’s discussion of proposing a similar nation-wide tax cut to the one implemented in Kansas.   

“It’s a win for bipartisanship, it’s a win for good government, it’s a win for the need to come to the table and draft compromises,” she said. “I hope we can be a bellwether for the nation because I think there are a lot of parallels.”  

The Trump administration's outline of the biggest tax cut "in history" is strikingly similar to cuts Kansas enacted, economists say. Fisher said she hopes the federal government looks at Kansas before passing any similar legislation. 

State Senator Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican, said if moderates in other states put in the same grassroots work that those in Kansas did, they can see similar success. In Kansas, she said, education was a key issue that brought voters together.   

"You have to find the focal point of what matters to people and then dig in and gather people up," she said. 

Some in and out of the state caution that Kansas’s tax cuts make it a unique example.

GOP strategist Chris Jankowski, who specializes in statehouse races, said it’s hard to extrapolate results in Kansas nationwide because Brownback’s tax cuts were more ambitious than those enacted in other states. He added that the rise of populism has furthur complicated the GOP's political climate and decreased hostilities between the moderate, establishment wing and the Tea Party, conservative wing.  

Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said Kansas’s tradition of moderate governance and history of moderate Republicans sets the state apart from many of its other deep red counterparts.  

“Kansas has this long tradition of moderates and good governance that we are now getting back to,” he said. “A lot of those states haven’t had that, so asking them to create some kind of moderate Republicanism may be a bridge too far.”

But this success for moderates has some in Kansas hoping other states, and even possibly the federal government, look at Kansas as an inspiration in bipartisan governance.      

“For our state, having the Tea Party in charge has pretty much been a nightmare,” Bollier said. “We have a collapsing government structure and Americans believe in good government. And I, as a moderate Republican, believe in appropriate government.”

While Brownback promised slashing income taxes in 2012 would lead to an economic boom in the state, it has instead brought the state to the brink with bipartisan concerns over education and infrastructure funding due to the lack of revenue.

The 2012 tax cuts eliminated $3.7 billion in income taxes in five years and eliminated income taxes for many small businesses. Brownback and allies have staunchly defended the cuts, while most agree they have not achieved its economic goals while deeply hurting government services such as education and infrastructure.

After vetoing a compromise tax plan that would lead to an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue over two year, Brownback said the repeal bill would take the state “backward.”

“We have worked hard in Kansas to move our tax policy toward a pro-growth orientation,” the governor wrote in his veto message. “We can and we must balance our budget without negatively harming Kansas families.”

The Kansas Legislature overrode Brownback’s veto Tuesday night, with a 27 to 13 vote in the Senate and 88 to 31 vote in the House. Even some legislators who had voted for the tax cuts and defended them for years voted to override the veto.

“You really have seen a lot of grassroots activity this year,” Loomis said. “They just kept going and kept pressure on legislators, and I think that is one of the reasons the conservatives decided to vote for this package.”

This grassroots activism also played a role in the moderate Republican’s electoral victories last summer and a handful of Democratic pickups last fall. Eight of 12 candidates in contested Senate primaries supported by the Kansas State Chamber of Commerce, a group aligned with Brownback, lost. Eighteen of 31 candidates in the House, including eight incumbents, also lost.  

Judith Deedy, the executive director of Game On For Kansas Schools, said the electoral success was the result of hard work from activists.      

“I think we saw a case where legislators were saying they supported reasonable government, but we saw their votes going farther and farther away,” she said. “They were no longer representing their constituents.”

Brownback and other conservative Republicans rose to power in 2010 and solidified their grip on power in 2012, when they knocked out some moderate state legislators in GOP primaries. Loomis said although the state had been becoming more and more conservative over time, 2010 was a significant election.    

“Kansas, much like many other states, had a nationalized election against Obamacare, against Obama,” Loomis said.  “You had a red state going from fairly red to very red.”

Education proved to be the crucial issue for Deedy and many other parents. Deedy’s organization attempted to illustrate the difference between politician's campaign promises to maintain high quality education and the impact of their votes.     

“We’ve chosen to live in Kansas because we had a really-high quality of life and good public schools,” Deedy said.  “It was really offensive to see that under attack.”

Game On For Kansas Schools joined with other non-profits in the state, including the Mainstream Coalition to promote moderate candidates.

Fisher said the state's political climate has created three factions in the state legislature's Republican party: ultra-conservatives who have remained loyal to Brownback and his policies, conservatives who have been willing to compromise, and moderate Republicans.

“I think what is happening in Kansas is pretty unique, these bipartisan groups working together for change,” she said. “It is pretty tenuous, but I think there has been this realization that is the only way we can move Kansas forward.”