TOPEKA, Kansas — Five years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback made Kansas an economic laboratory for the nation by aggressively cutting taxes. Even if he now leaves his home state an example of trickle-down economics that didn’t work, he’s nevertheless moving on to a post of deep significance to religious groups in America and worldwide.
The White House on Wednesday announced that President Donald Trump plans to nominate Brownback to serve as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. If confirmed by the Senate, he’ll run the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
Kansas officials expect Brownback to step down as governor when he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but his office wouldn’t discuss his plans Wednesday evening. Brownback’s fellow Republicans called the job a good fit for him, and some conservative religious groups had pushed for the appointment.
“Sam has always been called to fight for those of all faiths, and I am glad he has been given an opportunity to answer this call,” said Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, a fellow Republican.
Brownback’s departure would automatically elevate fellow conservative Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to governor.
Brownback, 60, served in the U.S. Senate before his election as governor in 2010 and was an early advocate of U.S. action to stop genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, and visited Congo and Rwanda to decry humanitarian crises and call for better coordination in foreign aid programs.
In a tweet Brownback called religious freedom “the first freedom,” and said he was honored “to serve such an important cause.”
But Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBT-rights group Equality Kansas, decried Brownback’s nomination because of his conservative views on issues such as same-sex marriage.
“He has caused enough damage here in Kansas,” Witt said in a statement. “We do not wish him upon the world.”
Brownback also would leave a Kansas legacy of far tougher restrictions on abortion and fewer limits on gun owners than when he won the first of his two terms in 2010.
He rejected expanding the Medicaid health program for the poor in line with former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law even as several other Republican governors went ahead.
But Brownback will be most remembered for championing cuts in Kansas personal income taxes starting in 2012. The state was supposed to get a “shot of adrenaline to the heart” of its economy.
He described it as a state-level experiment that would demonstrate the benefits of tax-cutting theory that dates back to Ronald Reagan’s administration, with Kansas even hiring Reagan economist Arthur Laffer to provide advice and promote the results. Cutting taxes — in particular for business owners — would spur hiring, creating wealth that would trickle down to everyone.
It’s still GOP orthodoxy, and Trump has set similar tax cutting goals. But in Kansas, the cuts failed to deliver the economic growth the governor had promised, and persistent and sometimes severe budget problems followed.
“His policies have bankrupted our state and led to destroying nearly every agency of state government as well as his own political career,” said Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and a vocal critic.
With the state’s economy struggling, Brownback won re-election with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2014 by suggesting the state could have it all. Kansas could keep his core income tax cuts without sacrificing spending on schools or social services. Instead, the state muddled along with temporary budget patches, raiding highway funds, shorting public pensions and then boosting sales and cigarette taxes.
Trump carried Kansas easily in 2016, but voters turned on Brownback and his allies, ousting two dozen of his conservative allies from the Legislature and giving Democrats and GOP moderates more power.
The Kansas Legislature repudiated Brownback’s program in June, rolling back most of those past tax cuts, raising rates and ending an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners to raise $1.2 billion over two years. Brownback vetoed their bill, and they overrode his action.
Brownback has long been a favorite of Christian conservatives for his strong stances as a U.S. senator against abortion and same-sex marriage. He also gained some attention as a vocal critic of the entertainment industry.
He started running in 2007 for the Republican presidential nomination, but dropped out before primaries and caucuses began in 2008.
Brownback converted to Catholicism in 2002 after having been a Methodist, and his religious devotion and commitment to helping the poor in other nations has led him in the past to break the mold of classic conservatives.
The position of United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as part of the International Religious Freedom Act. It’s considered the most important platform within the U.S. government to promote the cause of religious freedom around the world, and the fact the Trump administration didn’t fill it sooner was read by some observers as a lack of interest in engaging matters of concern to religious communities.
If confirmed, Brownback will become the fifth occupant of the ambassador’s post, replacing Rabbi David Saperstein, nominated under President Barack Obama and the first non-Christian to hold the job.