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SPOTLIGHT
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Be careful what you wish for ...

Published on -5/26/2013, 10:57 AM

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Governor Brownback is probably thinking of the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" these days.

The governor's putsch against moderates of his own party was supposed to be the removal of one last barrier to his full agenda being rubber-stamped by the Kansas Legislature, but instead he finds himself in the oddly triangulated position of being on the "tax-and-spend liberal" side of a state budget battle with many of the same folks he helped elect to office over the last two cycles.

It now seems the governor is more man in the middle than king of the hill.

What was supposed to be an 81-day legislative session already has gone into overtime. As of last week, the House and the Senate could not agree on a resolution to a vexing tax problem that continues to delay the final details of next year's budget. Spending on higher education, state employee salaries, and revenues from sales versus income taxes are all part of the mix that has prevented compromise between the chambers so far with no sign of resolution in the near future.

The governor's plan has been to drastically cut state income taxes and replace a portion of that revenue with sales taxes. Had the governor had all the clout expected, the dispute at hand would have easily been resolved: The scheduled-to-sunset portion of the state's current 6.3 percent sales tax would be extended as part of a larger plan to eventually drive income taxes to zero.

Somewhere along the way, things went sideways.

The impasse tells us more about the state of Kansas politics than the seemingly reduced clout of the governor. When the governor purged moderates, most assumed that the newly elected conservatives would be ideologically similar to the governor. However, many of the new cohort are actually more acting conservative than the governor, wanting to reduce income taxes and let the entire 0.6 percent of the sales tax sunset. The extra quarter-billion dollars that would need to be cut has been why the most conservative faction has yet to convince the rest of the House, any of the Senate or the governor that their vision should lead. The Senate, more recently swept by the governor's forces, is closer to his preferences but would still cut more than he prefers.

Instead of the two factions of Team Morris and Team Brownback from the 2012 primaries, three factions are emerging: Team Brownback, Team Chamber and Team Undecided.

The Brownback team knows elections are coming next year, and budget cuts are often unpopular -- big budget cuts even more so. But Team Chamber, influenced by former House Speaker Mike O'Neal at the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, is convinced that there will be no pushback for large cuts. Team Chamber is openly defying the governor's more moderate, for lack of a better word, stance.

Team Undecided is the group that is up for grabs, waiting to see which side will start to dominate proceedings so as not to anger the wrong people in advance of the 2014 elections.

None of the three factions is big enough to exact their will on the rest of the legislative agenda. While most of Team Chamber is wracked with paranoia about being primaried on the right next year, Team Brownback and Team Undecided are more concerned about Democrats knocking them off.

The newest members of any Legislature are the most vulnerable, so the fear among those with the most to lose is almost palpable. That fear from both sides may explain why rather than unity we seem to have three factions appearing in the legislature.

As a result, the governor now might be wondering if he actually has gotten what he wished for.

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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