Controversy never scared Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback from tackling politically difficult issues.
Brownback begins his second term still fearless, renewing his commitment to zeroing out income taxes without saying directly how the state can overcome a $700 million budget deficit that followed tax cuts he signed into law.
He also called for a rewrite of how state dollars are passed out to local schools. That’s as touchy as an issue gets in the Capitol.
The proudly conservative Republican governor skipped any details about patching the budget hole in Thursday’s State of the State speech — leaving that for his proposed budget Friday.
But the statehouse has buzzed with speculation this week that he could call for some kind of tax increase, possibly on alcohol and cigarettes, or maybe even delaying scheduled tax cuts.
In any one year, either issue could be a handful. But juggling taxes and school financing simultaneously could prove especially daunting.
▪ If at first you don’t succeed... Two years ago, Brownback tried to give school districts a lump sum equal to $4,492 per student.
The plan died in a state Senate controlled by Brownback’s moderate adversaries. Power has since shifted to conservatives, increasing Brownback’s odds of success.
The Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts supported the governor’s proposal included in that plan to eliminate the cap on how much school districts could raise locally.
But the plan stirred controversy because it eliminated weightings that give school districts more money based on factors such as their number of at-risk and bilingual students and transportation costs.
▪ The courts. A panel of district court judges in Topeka recently ruled that Kansas schools are illegally underfunded and suggested the state needs to spend an extra $548 million.
Wall Street has noted the ruling and fretted about how it complicates budget balancing.
Some conservative lawmakers want action on the school formula immediately.
“We (must) start dealing with this education funding model, or we’re going to continue in this spiral of uncertainty,” said Rep. Jerry Lunn, an Overland Park Republican and vice chairman of the House Education Committee.
A rewrite of the formula could help lawmakers two ways: It could save money while freeing the state from pending court rulings.
▪ Educational civil war. Rewriting the school finance formula is not so much about conservative and moderate or Republican and Democrat. It’s about which districts gain money and which lose.
In 2012, for instance, Johnson County schools supported Brownback’s efforts to remove the cap on raising property taxes for local education spending. Less prosperous districts opposed redoing the formula because they would have lost state money.
“People are all about winners and losers,” said Mission Hills Republican state Rep. Barbara Bollier, “instead of what’s best for the whole state.”
▪ Supporter revolt. If he has to raise taxes, will the governor face blowback from supporters who might feel misled after Brownback squeaked by Democratic challenger Paul Davis with less than 50 percent of the popular vote? After all, his campaign was substantially about how lower taxes would bring economic expansion.
“I don’t think he can do a 180 on that,” said state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican and a supporter of the governor’s income tax cuts.
▪ No new taxes. The conservatives controlling the Legislature were elected opposing taxes, especially the penny sales tax passed in 2010.
How Brownback cajoles his conservative friends in the Legislature to go along with new taxes is a murky picture at best.
About a quarter of the 40 state senators, for instance, told Americans for Prosperity in 2012 campaign surveys that they would oppose new taxes even if revenues failed to meet expenses. The common rallying cry in the House is that “the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
Conservative lawmakers insist the state needs to exhaust all options for cutting spending before entertaining a tax increase.
“We’re going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming to that,” said state Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican.
▪ A little help from some friends? Can Brownback get help from the moderate minority of his party to get new taxes passed after campaigning against their wing of the GOP?
Of 97 Republicans in the Kansas House, 23 are believed to lean moderate. Just how many of those might support new revenues — especially if the governor has trouble mustering votes from conservatives — is hard to predict, said Rep. Tom Sloan, a leading moderate Republican from Lawrence.
While moderates might be inclined to support new revenues, Sloan said much depends on the governor’s approach.
▪ A hail Mary. At what point will the state’s $700 million budget hole change the dynamics?
When lawmakers hit “desperation,” said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce.
“If you can’t get your solution from cuts alone, you have to look at” higher taxes, said Bruce, a Nickerson Republican. “That’s why you can say it has a chance.”
State Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said the income tax cuts scheduled for 2016 through 2018 should be stopped. He said the state has already taken enough steps to become more competitive on taxes. He said the budget hole might be too deep to overcome.
“We can’t keep those hard cuts in place,” Denning said. “This thing is very acute.”