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Even without mandate, Brownback, allies to protect Kansas income tax cuts in tackling budget


TOPEKA, Kansas — Even without an election mandate favoring his income tax cuts, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and his legislative allies signaled Wednesday that they'll protect his signature policy while addressing state budget problems.

The conservative Republican governor won a narrow re-election victory over Democrat Paul Davis, who argued that the tax cuts wrecked the state's finances because it faces a predicted budget shortfall of at least $260 million by July 2016. Republicans swept all statewide and congressional races on the ballot, as they did in the 2010 presidential midterm elections, and padded their supermajorities in the Legislature.

But Brownback's victory didn't signal overall voter approval for the tax cuts enacted by legislators at his urging, according to exit polling data released Wednesday. A survey of 2,027 voters for The Associated Press and television networks said that 53 percent of those surveyed felt the tax cuts had mostly hurt the state, while 41 percent thought they'd mostly helped. The polling by Edison Research had a margin of error of 4 percent.

Republicans took Brownback's victory as a validation of the governor's policies, and he declared in his Tuesday night victory speech that the demonstrated that "ideas and direction matter." House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican and Brownback ally, said the budget is the Legislature's top issue next year and promised to protect core services.

But Merrick added, "We don't have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem."

The state has dropped its top personal income tax rate by 26 percent and exempted the owners of 191,000 businesses from income taxes altogether.

The stance taken by Brownback and his allies on protecting the tax cuts after the governor's narrow victory contrasted with comments by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. The senator survived a tough challenge against independent candidate Greg Orman by a wider margin after pitching his re-election as a way to block Democratic President Barack Obama's agenda. But Roberts said during a Wednesday news conference that he and other Republicans hope to work with the president on some issues, such as trade.

"If we could work with the president, we would — no need to pick a fight with him right off the bat," Roberts said.

After a fall campaign season that began with much hope for Democrats, the state party was regrouping Wednesday.

Roberts and Brownback had received national attention for appearing unusually vulnerable in their GOP-leaning state. The exit polling showed that 85 percent of the self-identified Republican voters surveyed backed Roberts and 80 percent supported Brownback.

PHOTO: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback makes his victory speech during a Republican watch party Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback makes his victory speech during a Republican watch party Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

"I think this whole notion of having a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate and the anti-Obama factor caused a lot of Republicans to basically remain loyal to their party," said Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

With the election behind Brownback, his administration prepared for a new fiscal forecast. Members of Brownback's budget staff, Department of Revenue officials, legislative researchers and university economists planned to meet Monday to draft new revenue predictions.

Brownback's administration already has said it is working to find budget savings and has identified $101 million worth.

"I don't anticipate major changes to budget or to tax policy," said Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley.

And state Rep. John Rubin, a conservative Shawnee Republican, said the GOP-dominated Legislature will be looking to reduce spending.

"We will continue to enact tax policy and spending restraints to grow the economy and grow jobs," he said Wednesday.

John Flesher in Chicago contributed to this report.

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PHOTO: Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts speaks to the media Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014, at the Kansas Republican Party headquarters in Topeka, Kan. Roberts was reelected Tuesday after a tough challenge from Independent candidate Greg Orman. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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