After years of fighting with the Kansas Supreme Court over education funding, Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday reversed course and called for hundreds of millions more for public schools.
He immediately came under attack from Republican leaders, while Democrats were more warm to the proposal but questioned the details.
The Republican governor said during his final State of the State speech that he wants an additional $600 million in school funding over the next five years. But he said he won’t call for a tax increase, and he offered no plan in the speech for how Kansas can reach his funding goal during a time of tight budgets.
“Let me make one thing very clear, the people of Kansas expect results,” Brownback said.
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Brownback has been waiting since July to leave Kansas for a job in President Donald Trump’s administration. But after seeing his nomination fail to make it through the U.S. Senate in 2017, Brownback instead found himself talking about his hopes and dreams for the state in front of a crowd of hundreds in the Kansas House chamber.
His surprise call for more education funding quickly brought him into conflict with Republican lawmakers who have publicly fought with him often in the last year. Administration officials will fully unveil Brownback’s budget proposal Wednesday.
“I know he’s trying to get to Washington, D.C. He’s not there yet, but he continues to try to lead like he’s in Washington, D.C., and he must not have got the memo that we don’t print money in Kansas and that we live within our means,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican. “So he’s put us in a very bad spot. His financial acumen as we know is very low, but this is reckless.
“He’s giving everybody a sense of false hope that he’s just solved the school issue when he’s made it a hell of a lot worse.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she had a budget review with the governor earlier Tuesday and called his budget “clearly a very political budget.”
“It’s clearly one that we can’t afford without a major tax increase next year,” she said.
Wagle took issue with the governor’s actions in 2017 when she said Brownback “fought hard” against a balanced budget, denigrated people who voted for a tax increase and then came out with more spending.
“It’s very disingenuous of him,” Wagle said after Tuesday’s speech.
Last year, Kansas lawmakers increased school funding by more than $290 million. Overriding a Brownback veto, they approved a $1 billion tax increase over two years to pay for the funding increase and to close a massive budget hole.
But the court ruled that the Legislature had come up short. Lawmakers now are faced with either approving another tax increase or cutting other parts of the budget to boost education funding enough to satisfy the court.
The court did not give lawmakers a specific dollar figure in its fall decision, but John Robb, an attorney for the Kansas City, Kan., school district and three other plaintiff districts, told The Star in October, “It’s exactly $600 million short.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called Brownback’s $600 million figure a good starting point. But he wants to see the details on where Brownback plans to get the money.
“Sam Brownback has laid that down for us to work in a bipartisan manner,” Hensley said.
In his speech Tuesday, Brownback also appealed to conservatives who have called for a constitutional amendment to stop the court fights by echoing their concerns and hope for a change.
“We must stop the neverending cycle of litigation on school finance,” Brownback said. “I urge the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year addressing our school finance system. The people need to be heard on this central issue of state government.”
But passing a constitutional amendment may be a tough task, even in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate and then would go to a statewide vote. It could not be vetoed by the governor.
Brownback said that results are expected from the additional funding, and he called for beating the average teacher pay of Kansas’ neighboring states and boosting the number of school counselors. He also said every high school student should be able to take the ACT exam at no additional cost to parents.
“Six hundred million dollars is a very significant investment,” Brownback said. “And Kansans expect to see students in every school in our state thrive and achieve, particularly our students who the court cited as being inadequately served under our current funding.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Fairway Republican who focuses on education, was critical of the way the governor proposed the boost after a contentious legislative session last year in which he resisted a rollback of his earlier tax cuts. The Legislature finally overrode his veto.
It’s nothing more than a feel good talking point if Brownback’s going to throw the figure out there without any proposal to go along with it that details where that money might come from, she said.
“I like puppies, and I like unicorns,” Rooker said. “But, you know, I don’t know what the substance of this proposal actually looks like.”
And Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said “those numbers don’t add up, and they don’t balance.”
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said she was thrilled by the $600 million figure but awaits details on how Brownback plans to balance the budget.
“I don’t know why he changed his mind; I’m not sure why he said that,” Wolfe Moore said. “But I’m very happy that he did. The devil will be in the details.”
The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.