Sam Brownback stepped down as governor nearly two years ago, but the policies and actions of his administration have a lasting impact on state government and the Kansas political landscape.

The Topeka Capital-Journal held a magnifying glass to government operations under Brownback and his successor, former Gov. Jeff Colyer, to report a series of stories called Capitol Offenses. The series leads our list of top political stories of 2019.

Among the findings:

• The state reduced contributions to the state employee health insurance fund to balance the budget for Brownback's ill-fated tax experiment, shifting the cost to employees with a spouse or children, and draining a reserve fund by $171 million.

• Former Kansas Department of Commerce secretary Antonio Soave transferred financial and personnel data of 10,000 businesses to his own private consulting firm.

• Kansas Department of Corrections staff failed to intervene in five years of alleged sexual abuse of inmates enrolled in a dental lab program at the state-run women's prison — despite repeated formal complaints by inmates and a federal auditor's recommendation to fire the lab instructor, Tomas Co, who now faces six felony charges.

Other Capitol Offenses stories explored Brownback's failed and costly attempt to demolish the Docking State Office Building, the downplaying of sex scandals by the top officer of the Kansas Highway Patrol, a former state senator who padded his salary with travel and food vouchers, and a current chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee who worked for a company that received $13.3 million in state contracts from the commerce department.

Following are other highlights in Kansas politics in 2019.

 

#FosterHope

An investigative series by KCUR and The Capital-Journal explored the prosecution of Hope Zeferjohn, one of 13 girls who ran away from the Kansas foster care system or state custody and became victims of human trafficking.

Kansas added thousands of children to the state foster care system during the Brownback years. The number of children who went missing nearly doubled in a three-year period as severe instability plagued the foster care system.

That instability was highlighted in the story of a Topeka girl who fled foster care by leaping from a second-story window after being placed in five different homes in five nights. The foster care provider didn't notify the missing girl's father.

The Legislature provided new funding for social workers in 2019, but lawmakers grew concerned with the lack of immediate and significant progress under new Gov. Laura Kelly.

Kelly's administration severed ties with a literacy program accused of pilfering money from children's food funding — and other financial activity discovered but not disclosed under Brownback.

 

Medicaid expansion

A bipartisan coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the House staged parliamentary high jinks to pass a Medicaid expansion plan, but GOP leadership in the Senate managed to stiff-arm the legislation.

The refusal to allow a vote on a plan to extend health insurance to 130,000 low-income Kansas adults and children provoked protests throughout the session. Republican leaders in the Senate have promised to allow a vote on a competing proposal early in the 2020 session.

 

The long goodbye

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts announced in January 2019 he won't seek re-election, closing the book on a political career that began as a congressional aide in the 1960s.

His pending departure provided a new platform for former Secretary of State Kris Kobach and other Republicans eager to take Roberts' place. Rampant speculation centers on whether U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could be enticed to enter the race.

 

Lightning rod for controversy

In one of the most-read stories of the year, U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins wouldn't answer questions about rumors that a behind-the-scenes scandal could prompt him to leave office. When confronted at a Fort Scott event, he chose instead to stage a fake phone call, flee through a side door and hop into a waiting vehicle to speed away.

The freshman congressman then faced questions this fall about whether he committed fraud by listing a UPS store as his home address when he registered to vote.

 

'Parody' legislation

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, and six other Republicans signed onto a hate-filled bill that declared same-sex marriage as a "parody" and asserted the LGBTQ community is guided by a "daily code."

The model legislation appeared to be the work of aggressive activist Chris Sevier. Another bill with Sevier's fingerprints would have required all phones and computers to be furnished with porn-blocking software.

Christel Highland expressed disappointment in her father, writing in an open letter that "your God did not elect you — living, breathing human beings did."

 

High court rules

The Kansas Supreme Court issued major decisions that declared the state constitution grants women the right to an abortion and that the latest infusion of cash into public schools satisfies a mandate for adequate and equitable funding.

 

Tax changes denied

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, took control of a special committee geared toward tax reform that would offer relief to multinational corporations and Kansans who itemize personal income taxes, among other provisions. Kelly's vetoes of both attempts at reform narrowly survived in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

 

Judicial selection

Kelly's first attempt to fill an appellate court seat went down in flames over revelations of Jeffry Jack's profane and politically charged social media posts. Late last year, Kelly made her first pick for the Supreme Court, installing Shawnee County District Judge Evelyn Wilson on the high court bench.

 

Pay now, not later

Lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected Kelly's proposal to cushion the five-year budget outlook by refinancing the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System on a 30-year deal that would have cost $7 billion. Instead, lawmakers unanimously approved a $115 million transfer to cover a missed payment from the Brownback era.

 

Clash of titans

In a showdown between influential power players, Farm Bureau secured approval for a cheap, unregulated alternative to health insurance despite objections raised by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas.

 

Classy, quiet place

A boisterous, alcohol-fueled celebration by high-ranking Republican legislators and lobbyists became the top-read political story of the year when the owners of White Linen, a fine dining restaurant in Topeka, banned House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and others from returning.