New Kansas governor promises to focus on 'basics

By John Hanna

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 10 2011 11:04 a.m. MST

Kansas Governor Elect Sam Brownback waves to the crowd as he enters the Inauguration dinner at the Kansas Expocentre Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011 in Topeka, Kan.

The Topeka Capital Journal, Anthony S. Bush, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

TOPEKA, Kan. — New Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback promised in his inaugural address Monday to focus on the basics of government as the state wrestles with a big budget shortfall, and the Republican said he wants Kansas to renew the nation's optimism and become known as "a state of Hope."

Brownback acknowledged the difficulties facing the state as he took office as the state's 46th governor. The budget shortfall is projected at $550 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and more than 100,000 Kansans are seeking work. He also said families and the social fabric "fray against the crassness of modernity."

"Yet we have known worse and overcome more," Brownback said. "To live in Kansas is to have a type of sober optimism that is both realistic and hopeful, well-grounded, yet soaring."

Much of Brownback's brief speech following his swearing in touched on the state's history as it approaches the 150th anniversary of its admission to the union on Jan. 29. He paid tribute to its anti-slavery abolitionist founders, its farmers and its aircraft manufacturers — even its heritage as a place where basketball once bloomed as a new sport. The text of Brownback's address was distributed to the media in advance.

He and other statewide officials took their oaths of office in the Kansas House chamber after a winter storm forced his staff to move it from the south steps of the Statehouse. The storm dumped several inches of snow overnight and kept it coming steadily throughout the morning, closing schools and dropping the wind chill low enough that frostbite became a concern.

"Our administration will focus on the basics," he declared. "I want Kansas to be known as a state of Hope. Whoever has the most hope has the biggest dreams. Whoever has the most hope has the most influence, for mankind moves forward on hope."

Brownback's swearing in was a moment that fellow anti-tax, small-government and anti-abortion conservatives have long sought after self-described centrists from both parties governed, twice pushing successfully in the last decade for higher taxes to prop up the budget in bad economic times. Republicans swept all statewide and congressional races on the ballot in last year's election for the first time since 1964, and the Legislature has huge GOP majorities.

"Free, moral men and women will accomplish much more than government planners with regulations," Brownback said. "Let us, as Kansans, lead the nation in a return to virtue, a 'reformation of manners' and a rejuvenation of optimism."

Brownback isn't the only conservative swept into high office in Kansas by last year's elections.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a law professor now on leave, is known nationally for having written last year's Arizona law on illegal immigration and advising city officials and state legislators across the nation trying to crack down.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, hasn't been identified consistently with the GOP right, but he's embraced a cause championed by the tea party movement, promising to bring Kansas into a legal challenge of the federal health care overhaul approved last year.

Brownback, 54, gave up a U.S. Senate seat to become governor. Born in Garnett and raised on a family farm in eastern Kansas, he was trained as a lawyer and served as Kansas agriculture secretary before being elected to Congress in 1994. Two years later, when GOP icon Bob Dole left the U.S. Senate to run for president, Brownback ran for Dole's seat and won the right to serve the rest of his term. He won two full terms after that, then fulfilled a promise not to stay longer.

Brownback launched a campaign for president in 2007, hoping strong ties to abortion and gay marriage opponents and his visibility on other issues favored by social conservatives would give him a good chance at the GOP nomination. He dropped out after 10 months, but critics still think he harbors presidential ambitions.

Brownback has acknowledged that he's the most conservative Kansas governor in at least a generation. Outgoing Gov. Mark Parkinson is a Democrat who successfully pushed a sales tax increase through the Legislature last year. GOP Gov. Bill Graves did the same thing in 2002, during another economic downturn, also to preserve aid to public schools and social services.

The state is facing a shortfall despite last year's tax increase largely because it has used federal economic stimulus funds to prop up aid to public schools and social services, and those funds are expected to disappear in the next fiscal year. The gap between projected revenues and current spending commitments is about 9 percent.

"The threats we face today are primarily internal — not foreign tyranny or conquest, but excesses of cynicism, selfishness and despair," he said in his inaugural address.

Brownback has talked about making government more efficient and "sweeping" the state budget for savings. In an inaugural ball toast, Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, looked forward to a "permanent reset of state government."

"Sam has to deliver," said Mary Alice Lair, a long-time GOP activist and Brownback supporter from Chanute who served in the past on the Republican National Committee. "He maybe has to be not the most popular governor in the next two years."

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