Governor Sam Brownback's Jan. 15th State of the State address was short and disconnected from reality. He failed to acknowledge the Kansas Supreme Court members in the audience, setting the tone for his provocative speech. Interestingly, the full text of the governor's speech posted online from two different media sources did include an acknowledgment of the Supreme Court justices. Did he simply overlook the prepared text or did his antipathy slip and show?
Brownback promised a continued "march to zero income taxes," in spite of a projected $700 million hole in the state's budget over the next 18 months. And, surprisingly, he proposed a repeal of the school finance formula, causing some to question whether he was trying to deflect a district court ruling requiring substantially more public school funding. He suggested changing the constitutionally-mandated selection process for the state Supreme Court, which he called "the least democratic system in America." His idea? To change the nomination process from a panel made up of lawyers and the public to a single individual: him.
I spend a fair amount of time in my head addressing mental letters to our governor, so I may as well put these thoughts on paper.
Dear Governor Brownback:
In this, your last term in office, why not spend more time considering the legacy you want to leave, what sort of footprint you want attached to your name in Kansas history textbooks? Instead of surrounding yourself with ideologues, why not reach out to your diverse populace, and try to actually exercise the art of governing -- bridging differences to arrive at compromise -- rather than trying to cram a narrow agenda down the throats of Kansas citizens?
You act as though your most recent election gives you a broad mandate, when in fact your margin of victory was slim. You act as though your constituents speak in a monolithic voice, audaciously proclaiming Kansas "the most pro-life state in America," when you lost re-election in my home county, where many, like me, identify themselves as pro-choice.
Your speech reflected a huge disconnect between your rhetoric and the reality in the state. You proclaimed: "We are at our best when we stir within ourselves our better angels. When our hearts are tender to what God is tender to ... the poor, the voiceless, the powerless." And yet you have refused to expand Medicaid benefits available under the Affordable Care Act. You took the administration and distribution of welfare and disability payments out of the hands of knowledgeable state employees, and transferred those duties to private firms woefully behind the curve in serving the very populace you say should be tender to our hearts.
You closed your speech by invoking the wisdom of the Ancients. This was actually a welcome change from the Christian God you normally invoke, blithely assuming that all your state's residents are Christians, or believers at all. You say the Ancients would have us be "first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere."
Was your campaign pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, sincere? Recent news reports suggest that a grand jury is investigating the loans made by your lieutenant governor, a plastic surgeon, to your campaign coffers, loans designed to fatten your campaign purse and make it seem you had more financial backing than you did in fact possess. According to a news report in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer loaned the campaign $500,000 two different times right before campaign finance reports were due. Both loans were repaid shortly after. A third $500,000 loan was reportedly paid back in part. Your rhetoric of piety and purity is contradicted by these shell games.
In addition, the Capital-Journal reports that the FBI is looking into possible influence-peddling by figures close to your administration.
Your lofty rhetoric suggests that you know there is a higher road. Governor, abandon your narrow agenda. Walk with the Ancients, and take a path that is more consistent with enduring ideals and broad-minded ideas.
Be expansive, be inclusive, be democratic in the small "d" sense of the word. I'm not asking you to switch political parties, but rather to govern as though you better appreciate the concerns of the many competing constituencies you are supposed to represent in the state's highest office. Consider your legacy, and make sure your actions are more consistent with your words. Be your better self.
I'm not so naive as to think that the governor will take my advice. As he showed in his State of the State address, he is disconnected from reality, or rather connected only to a very narrow slice of reality.