Gov. Sam Brownback’s ominous remake of Kansas
The Kansas City Star
No area politician had a bigger 2012 than Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
With a heavy dose of persuasion and a shake of trickery, he convinced the Legislature to drastically reduce state income taxes.
His administration shook off concerns of “too much, too fast” and forged ahead with a massive privatization of the state’s Medicaid program.
And a political apparatus closely tied to the governor purged the Kansas Senate of most moderate Republicans, who had united with the small contingent of Democrats to block some of Brownback’s initiatives.
Two years into his first term, Brownback has the uber-conservative Legislature that he wanted and a glide path for more big changes.
Lawmakers are almost certain to pass an ill-advised bill giving the governor the authority to select judges for the state appeals court, injecting politics into a merit-based system that works.
Public school administrators and teachers are nervously awaiting a report from Brownback’s “school efficiency task force,” a committee top-heavy with accountants and light on educators.
More restrictions on abortion clinics and providers may be in the offing.
But even as he breaks new ground in 2013, Brownback and all of Kansas will be dealing with the fallout from 2012.
The income tax cuts that the governor and his allies fought for so passionately will create a deep hole in the state’s budget. The gap between revenues and expenses is projected to be $295 million — and that’s assuming the state spends down a reserve fund of $470 million, leaving no cushion for future years.
The Medicaid overhaul is scheduled to take effect on New Year’s Day, despite a deep-seated foreboding among medical and social service providers. Two weeks before the scheduled start of the new initiative, known as KanCare, some hospitals and physician groups had not yet signed up with all or any of the three private insurance companies selected to coordinate the care of 380,000 Medicaid recipients.
The insurance companies are ramping up, nevertheless, hiring dozens of employees from state-funded social service and medical support groups but at much higher salaries. Concerns are mounting about how the three managed care companies — Amerigroup, United Healthcare and Sunflower State Health Plan, a subsidiary of Centene — will pay their overhead and make a profit without reducing the amount of services Kansans rely on.
The massive budget and health care challenges will fall into the laps of a remarkably inexperienced Legislature. Thanks to redistricting and the purge of veteran moderate Republicans, nearly one-third of the state’s lawmakers will be serving their first terms.
Many of them were elected not on the basis of experience serving their communities but rather on the strength of their conservative credentials, which garnered funding from Brownback’s deep-pocketed benefactors. They will quickly find themselves in public service boot camp.
That age-old adage, “Do No Harm,” would be a good guide for the 2013 Kansas Legislative session. Brownback and lawmakers would do well to keep a close eye on the KanCare program and to shy away from measures that will erode quality schools and gut what is left of the safety net.
The advice comes a year too late, however. The hasty passage of the income tax cuts, and the hurried start of KanCare are likely to haunt the state for a long time to come.