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Sam Brownback/Photo by John Hanna/AP

Following the yellow brick road

Politics | New Gov. Sam Brownback is turning Kansas into a bold laboratory for conservative reform

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011

After 16 years of D.C.'s emerald haze, former Sen. Sam Brownback is finding there's no place like home. This year he returned to Kansas as governor and has moved to remake the state's politics and provide a possible blueprint for the rest of the country.

Brownback had to deal with a whirlwind of problems including a $550 million deficit and a long-term trend of rural counties losing jobs and population. Most states faced much larger deficits: California, $28 billion; Illinois, $15 billion; New Jersey, $10.5 billion. Those states tried jury-rigged combinations of spending cuts, tax increases, and structural reforms, but Brownback, aided by a strongly Republican legislature, has tried to develop a consistent conservative program.

The new governor aims to grow the state's economy by keeping taxes low and cutting spending. In May he signed into law a budget that he said would eliminate the shortfall without raising taxes and would end the 2012 fiscal year with a surplus.

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One of Brownback's most innovative efforts is his Rural Opportunity Zone program, which intends to reverse population decline in 50 of the 105 Kansas counties. The problem: Children of rural families go off to college and don't return, often leaving the state or settling in the bigger cities of suburban Kansas City and Wichita where industries are located. Brownback hopes to reverse the trend by offering grants to repay student loans (up to $15,000) and providing a five-year income tax exemption for out-of-state taxpayers who move to rural areas.

Many across the aisle are upset with his plans. Democratic Sen. Ed Trimmer said that getting people to move back into rural counties is only part of the problem: "If there are no jobs available in rural areas now, what will these people do to earn a Kansas income? Simply moving into an area does not create a job."

But Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag says the plan will provide not only an incentive for people to move back to rural areas, but also for businesses to move in. She said she has received queries from companies interested in moving to these areas because it would improve the quality of life for their employees.

Another Trimmer objection: If Brownback is successful in eliminating the income tax for all Kansans as he promises, the incentives to move to rural areas will be short-lived. Republican Rep. Lance Kinzer also voted against Brownback's plan because he said a Senate amendment added too many counties to the list, and the definition of rural counties was unclear: "We might as well make the whole state a Rural Opportunity Zone."

But the program passed the legislature and went into effect in July. Neighboring Nebraska and other states may enact similar plans if the Kansas program is effective.

Brownback's budget also aggressively cuts spending to close the deficit. In one of the most controversial cuts, Kansas became the first and only state to defund the arts following Brownback's line-item veto. He proposed instead to give a subsidy of $200,000 to the private nonprofit Kansas Art Foundation (KAF), which he wants to replace the state-sponsored arts commission. He also donated $30,000 of his leftover inauguration funds to the organization.

Linda Browning Weis, the chairwoman of the Kansas Arts Commission and the president of KAF, is confident she and other arts advocates can raise enough private dollars for the programs: "Because government funding goes away, is art going to die? No. Art will live on."

By ending funding for the arts, Kansas also forfeited a matching grant of nearly $1.3 million in federal aid. Americans for the Arts, a Washington arts lobby, said nonprofit arts and culture organizations in Kansas support more than 4,500 full-time jobs and deliver $15.6 million in local and state government revenue.

Brownback's other major push is to tighten abortion regulations. When he came into office, the governor promised to create a "culture of life" that would protect humans in all stages of life. Kansans for Life legislative director Kathy Ostrowski says he's made substantial improvements.

The governor signed abortion laws that restrict private insurance coverage of abortions, except when a woman's life is at risk. Kansas also banned abortion after 22 weeks' gestation, required annual inspections of abortion centers, and diverted about $330,000 in federal family planning funds from Planned Parenthood to public hospitals and health departments. Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are fighting the laws in court.

Brownback's budget also includes income tax deductions for new business equipment and software. It cut spending on education and government agencies, along with government worker pensions. Brownback plans to work more on those issues plus Medicaid and the state's judicial system. Kansas is the only state where a commission headed by the bar association selects justices for the governor to nominate. The current Kansas Supreme Court votes liberal and is likely to rule against Brownback's policies.

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