Brownback Stumping for Higher Education Funding Around Kansas

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is putting his conservative credentials on the line by stumping for an extension to the state sales tax in order to use the money for higher education funding. Since a call for additional taxes is likely to put him at odds with the Legislature’s conservative lawmakers, Brownback is taking his appeal directly to the voters by making personal appearances and speeches all around the state.

Legislators have already expressed the desire to end the sales tax and impose further higher education funding cuts to close a budget deficit of nearly $700 million in next year’s budget. If Brownback manages to win over both the public opinion and Kansas Republicans, any political benefits that are gained will accrue directly to him.

However, according to Bob Beatty, who is a professor of political science at Washburn University, Brownback is an enviable position of not standing to lose anything regardless of the eventual outcome.

“If he loses, he’d say, ‘The Legislature didn’t agree with me, but I fought for higher education,’ ” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty.

“This is the sort of thing,” Beatty said, “that can drive Brownback’s opponents crazy.”

While critics can argue the governor’s tax cuts set the stage for paring back higher education and other state services, the detailed explanation of how it unfolded may be a hard case to make in the heat of an election.

“It would be much easier to say, ‘I went to the campuses and urged that we protect higher education,’ ” Beatty said.

Of course, Brownback’s sincerity could be tested if the lawmakers carry the day and he’s put in a position to sign or veto the final version of the budget. So far, he has not committed one way or the other.

Meanwhile, he’s touring university campuses around Kansas, starting with Wichita State earlier this week followed by a stop at the University of Kansas. Next week he will deliver a speech at the University of Kansas Medical Center and Kansas City Community College.

However, Brownback is having trouble getting House members to support the tax extension. Many conservatives either voted against it in 2010 or campaigned against the sales tax to get elected. It puts the governor in an unfamiliar political position.

“In some ways it makes him look (like) a slightly more moderating force in the politics of the state,” said Wichita State University political scientist Ed Flentje. “I don’t know that’s where he wants to be.”

Democrats think that’s clearly by design.

“They are trying to make him look more moderate,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. “(But) people know that the Republicans have total control of government and he’s in charge.”