What we got from Governor Brownback was not quite what we expected. Much changed between the time he was Secretary of Agriculture and Governor. He went from being quite likable and non-controversial to being a very polarizing figure. His leadership approach was certainly not built on bringing people of different persuasions together. Not only did he change religions but, philosophically, he went from reasonably moderate to extreme right.
His policy mistakes were many but none more puzzling than his systematic destruction of the Kansas Bioscience Authority (KBA). What was at one time the darling of legislators across the board (created with bipartisan support in 2004) was now being trashed. Truth was not important and philosophical positions were often quite bizarre. None was more puzzling than his stance against picking winners and losers. He disliked that the KBA worked hard to make the wisest investments for the best interest of Kansas. He preferred that we invest the money without considering the likelihood of success. I think the Bible talks about putting the seeds where they can grow and not on the rocks.
His lack of support for all levels of public education is another example of his move to the far right, which favors private education. This dramatic change of position was totally new for Kansas. Proud of our public school system, most Kansans took for granted that the support from most public officials would be strong. With big money from private donors and other public school opponents, a push to support private education took place—more often and in new, different ways. This includes an assault on our judicial system to change the way we select judges in Kansas, in order to push the policies that these monied interest groups favored.
In his run for re-election, he loved to promise of his support for very much needed highway improvements. He was comfortable endorsing specific projects but never sharing on how they might be funded. Given he robbed extensively from the highway fund to avoid Kansas going broke, maybe that is understandable. Historically, highway maintenance and improvements had strong support from both sides of the isle, but not under this Governor.
As puzzling as anything was his adamant opposition to Medicaid expansion. Kansans were paying for it but not getting it. Despite many Republican Governors accepting the dollars and significant support from Kansas citizens, he stood his ground. The result was pain inflicted on large numbers of Kansans as well as the financial viability of many, particularly rural, community hospitals and nursing homes.
But maybe the most damaging mistake over time will be his lack of support for, and his meat ax approach to, the civil service system and public service in general. I say that because it may take a generation or more to restore the quality state workforce we once had. With the Governor's recommendation and the Legislature’s support, now when a civil service employee leaves the system the position automatically becomes political, bringing back in essence the spoils system that most of us thought was a thing of the past.
The story of the past six years will be about a Governor who sowed the seeds of political division in Kansas. From his all-out attacks on members of his own party, to his blatant disregard for opposing views of any kind, Governor Brownback leveraged a big money machine to turn our state into a petri dish for far-right policy and an extremist approach to governing. This is a far cry from the Kansas that many of us have known and loved.
What will happen to our state as a result of the Brownback years remains to be seen, and it will largely be up to us to decide. Kansans of all political stripes have certainly been activated. And, so far, there are signs that we may learn our lessons from these divisive and damaging years for our state and begin to put Kansas back on the right track by bringing people together around the solutions to our largely self-created challenges. The path forward will not be easy, and there is certainly a lot of work to do. But perhaps the next chapter can be the most exciting and impressive one yet: a state turning the page on division and building a model for how to come together, engage, and overcome the disastrous results left behind by these difficult years for Kansas.