Gov. Sam Brownback delivered a sometimes defiant State of the State address Tuesday that defended his conservative Republican policies and lashed out at President Barack Obama.
On the same night as Obama’s State of the Union address, Brownback scolded the president on refugee resettlement and on Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
“Elected officials have a responsibility to protect our citizens from all threats, foreign and domestic,” Brownback said. “In this, the president of the United States has refused to lead. He has prioritized his agenda and the feelings of the radical Islamic terrorists over the safety of Americans.”
Brownback on Friday broadened his November executive order that prohibited state agencies from assisting in the relocation of Syrian refugees. The new order applied to any refugees who pose a risk.
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Many governors question the federal government’s ability to properly screen refugees, he said.
“Instead of simply pausing his resettlement plan and working with governors to address their legitimate security concerns, President Obama has chosen to pursue a path that puts Americans at risk,” he said. “Mr. President, this will not work. We must — and will — act to protect the citizens of Kansas.
Many have been surprised by Brownback’s current stand on refugees. In the U.S. Senate, Brownback was known for backing refugee resettlement.
Brownback criticized Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo. He has been adamant that Fort Leavenworth must not be considered as a relocation facility.
“Every member of the Kansas congressional delegation, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and I each stand at the ready to thwart every action the president takes to transfer terrorists to Kansas,” he said.
Brownback’s speech touted his welfare reform policy and discussed such issues as wind energy and water resources, but some thought the governor’s focus on Obama, Planned Parenthood and terrorism was purely political and out of place.
On the state’s ongoing debate over school funding, Brownback called on the Legislature to design a new financing system that puts more money in instruction and into bonuses for exceptional teachers.
He didn’t specifically call for merit pay for teachers, but mentioned it along with alternative teacher certification as “innovative options” sought by parents and educators.
Kansans invest in education so good teachers can answer their calling and teach, he said.
“Yet today, of the more than $4 billion the state puts into education funding, not nearly enough goes toward instruction,” he said, a situation he called “highly inefficient, if not immoral.”
The current school financing law, a block-grant plan that replaced the former per-student formula, continues into 2017. It’s to be replaced with a new funding scheme, but many lawmakers have said that a new formula is unlikely to be completed in the 2016 session.
On health care, Brownback said he was asking Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a doctor, to put together a working group to address the problems of rural health care.
In praising the state’s Medicaid program called KanCare — he has opposed Medicaid expansion in the state — Brownback blamed federal health care law for increased health care costs, especially in rural areas.
Others have linked the struggle of rural hospitals in Kansas with the lack of Medicaid expansion.
“KanCare is working,” he said. “Obamacare is failing.”
Brownback said the working group should include rural hospital administrators and doctors along with top policymakers. He said he wants a proposal by this time next year.
Brownback renewed his call for a state constitutional amendment to change the way state Supreme Court justices are selected. Brownback has been critical of the courts, particularly over school funding rulings.
In the current system, a commission of lawyers and lay people provides the names of three Supreme Court nominees to the governor, who makes the final selection. Brownback wants to do away with the commission, giving the governor the authority to choose justices, with the consent of the Senate.
“Kansas is the only state in the country where the selection of Supreme Court justices is controlled by a handful of lawyers,” he said.
The proposal didn’t get through the Legislature in 2015.
Brownback didn’t mention the state’s ongoing budget problems or his tax policies — a “march to zero” on state income taxes.
His budget director on Wednesday will present budget changes to close a widening gap in the 2016 budget and a projected $170 million shortfall in the 2017 budget, which begins in July.
Many Democrats and moderate Republicans say the tax policy, which cut income tax rates and eliminated income taxes for many small-business owners, has so damaged revenue collections that budget shortfalls are now the norm.
Near the end of the speech, Brownback heralded the state’s anti-abortion reputation and attacked Planned Parenthood.
“We must keep working to protect our most innocent Kansans, our unborn,” he said. “We have become the shining city on the hill and the champions of life.”
Brownback said he was ordering that no state tax dollars go to Planned Parenthood through the state’s Medicaid program. And he asked that the Legislature make the directive a state law.
“Planned Parenthood’s trafficking of baby body parts is antithetical to our belief in human dignity,” said Brownback, mentioning a claim about the organization that many consider debunked.
Democratic leaders in the Legislature attacked Brownback’s speech, saying it wrongly focused on Obama and federal matters. Even some Republicans wondered why Brownback didn’t mention the state’s budget problems.
“I felt cheated,” said House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat. “He blamed the president for all the state’s problems.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said Brownback concentrated on Obama and blaming others, but he failed to discuss the budget shortfalls, the biggest issue the state is dealing with.
“It was the most partisan, classless speech I’ve heard a governor give in the 40 years I’ve been here,” Hensley said.