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Kansas Governor Ends Tenure As One Of Least Popular In Country

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Donald Trump has nominated a new ambassador for international religious freedom - Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.

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SAM BROWNBACK: I have been asked by the Trump administration to serve as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. I have accepted. I am honored to assume, if confirmed by the Senate, such an important role.

MCEVERS: If confirmed, Brownback's appointment will bring an end to his tumultuous years as Kansas governor. Since he was elected in 2010, Brownback has pushed the state in a much more conservative direction even as his popularity with voters plummeted. Kansas Public Radio's Stephen Koranda reports.

STEPHEN KORANDA, BYLINE: The year was 2012.

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BROWNBACK: I thank everybody for coming today. Just delighted to - delighted to have you all here.

KORANDA: Governor Sam Brownback was surrounded by satisfied conservatives as he signed sweeping tax cuts into law.

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BROWNBACK: Based on the people's ability to work, invent and create, not the government's ability to tax and redistribute.

KORANDA: As Brownback put it at the time, the era of ever-expanding government had come to an end.

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BROWNBACK: But let me say clearly we will meet the needs of our schools and our most vulnerable, and our roads will get built.

ANTHONY HENSLEY: Not at all. That was completely untrue.

KORANDA: That's the top Democrat in the Kansas Senate, Anthony Hensley. He says the tax cuts strangled the state's revenues. It had to borrow from the highway and state pension funds. School funding levels were ruled unconstitutional, and the cash crunch meant cuts to higher education.

HENSLEY: Of course, the governor, I don't think, could forsee that his tax experiment was going to be such an abject failure as it was.

KORANDA: Brownback's tax policies cost him support even among some Republicans, and his approval ratings sagged. Last month, lawmakers overrode Brownback's veto and rolled back most of those 2012 tax cuts. House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a centrist Republican, says there are benefits to Brownback's limited government philosophy.

DON HINEMAN: And yet we are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the government functions properly. And that takes a certain amount of money to accomplish that.

KORANDA: But Brownback's conservative allies, such as Senator Ty Masterson, say he's left his mark on the state.

TY MASTERSON: Brownback was able to bend the growth curve of government down. He has saved Kansans billions in taxes over his term here.

KORANDA: Brownback hoped that his tax policies would serve as a model for other states, but this year a number of Republican-led states also raise taxes in order to stem budget deficits. University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller says the rollback of Brownback's tax cuts will be a mark on his legacy.

PATRICK MILLER: Certainly we can look at the totality of his career and see some successes and some failures, but this will be the policy that really writes his Wikipedia page in a decade or so.

KORANDA: In his new job, Brownback will be working to monitor and fight religious persecution across the world. He's deeply religious, and as governor oversaw a significant tightening of abortion regulations. Kathy Ostrowski of Kansans For Life says Brownback energized the social conservatives.

KATHY OSTROWSKI: He's inspired some of the conservative leaders who had terrible bruises from the last couple of decades and he said, hang in there. Stay with it. And we're working on a project together.

KORANDA: Before he can join the Trump administration, Brownback will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Lieutenant Governor Jeff Colyer is in line to become the state's next chief executive. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Koranda in Topeka.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIE PELAGO'S "BROWN OXFORD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.