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Brownback Reflects On Legacy In Kansas, Sees Urgent Work Ahead As Religious Ambassador

Susie Fagan
Kansas News Service/File photo
Gov. Sam Brownback discusses his signature tax policy and other key issues during his years as governor during a news conference Thursday at the Statehouse.

Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday touted his credentials and passion for helping the Trump administration mitigate religious persecution around the globe.

The prospective ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom said he does not know how long it might take for the U.S. Senate to consider his nomination by President Donald Trump, and he hasn’t yet decided when to turn over the reins to his lieutenant governor, Jeff Colyer.

In a 35-minute Statehouse news conference, Brownback also reflected on his years at the helm of Kansas. He stood by his signature 2012 tax cuts, which the Legislature scuttled last month.

That the tax cuts didn’t pan out as expected was due to the price of commodities like wheat and oil, he said.

“We were in recession — a commodity-driven recession,” he said, “and you’re seeing multiple states wrestle with that set of issues.”

Brownback said the tax plan had led to the formation of record numbers of small businesses, but he added that it probably should have included a cap on tax exemptions for those companies.

The two-term governor’s chops as a social conservative also were on display. He touted his efforts to restrict abortion in Kansas and reiterated his belief that traditional family structure is declining, which he described as a critical challenge for the state.

On his potential move to the U.S. State Department, where he would head the Office of International Religious Freedom, he said the work is urgent. While in the U.S. Senate, Brownback voted for the 1998 bill, known as the International Religious Freedom Act, that created the office.

“We passed a bill in 1998 and the situation hasn’t improved,” he said. “You could easily argue it’s gotten worse.”

Kansas’ 46th governor, a Catholic, said the role of faith in his own life informs his concern for others around the world. He struggled with his emotions as he described attending church earlier in the day and knowing that people in some parts of the world risk their lives to do so.

“I went and I did something that is simple and done by millions of Americans every day,” he said, “and some have faced death for doing it. I took communion.”

Brownback said persecution affects all faiths.

Asked about accusations that the Trump administration has engaged in religious discrimination with its design of a travel ban targeting several majority Muslim countries, Brownback said the administration has its eye on protecting religious rights for all.

“I know they’re interested in the issues of religious liberty and religious freedom — that’s been clearly communicated,” he said. “And it’s for all faiths. It’s freedom of religion for all faiths.”

Brownback’s potential departure had been the focus of speculation for months, with multiple news outlets reporting on signs of an impending decision by the Trump administration. 

"It's for all faiths. It's freedom of religion for all faiths."

Trump revealed Wednesday he would nominate Brownback — who is more than halfway through his second four-year term — for the State Department position, which includes monitoring and responding to attacks on religious freedom around the globe. 

Brownback declined to say how long he had been in talks with the Trump administration about the position.

In an interview published earlier Thursday by WORLD Magazine, Brownback said he and Vice President Mike Pence spoke about the post as early as last year, after the presidential election but before Trump and Pence took office.

Brownback’s time as governor became increasingly embattled in recent years. In his first term, conservative allies swept legislative elections, winning enough seats to collaborate with him on overhauling the state’s tax structures in 2012 and 2013.

The massive tax cuts, which included exemptions for owners of more than 330,000 farms and small businesses, were billed as “a shot of adrenaline” for the Kansas economy.

But year after year, state revenues didn’t perform as hoped, leading the governor and Legislature to cut into budgets for state agencies, universities and schools, at times mid-fiscal year.

The instability fed public angst about the quality of education, roads and other government services, and the ensuing political backlash helped Democrats and moderate Republicans wrest legislative seats from conservatives in 2016.

At the end of its 2017 session, the Legislature scuttled Brownback’s signature tax cuts — and then overrode his veto of the effort

Brownback’s lieutenant governor, fellow conservative Republican Colyer, is a plastic surgeon and former state lawmaker from Overland Park. 

Colyer led the Brownback administration’s effort to privatize Medicaid, creating the system now called KanCare.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ

Stephen Koranda is the managing editor of the Kansas News Service, based at KCUR. He has nearly 20 years of experience in public media as a reporter and editor.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. She aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.