Government & Politics

Gov. Sam Brownback, wrestling with budget shortages, says Kansas is headed in the right direction

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback gestures while delivering the 2015 State of the State address in the Capitol in Topeka on Thursday, Jan. 15.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback gestures while delivering the 2015 State of the State address in the Capitol in Topeka on Thursday, Jan. 15.

Gov. Sam Brownback endorsed remaking the formula for funding public schools and putting the state’s creditors at the front of the line for payments from Kansas in an ambitious State of the State speech Thursday night.

He also embraced moving city elections to the fall and changing the way Kansas selects its Supreme Court justices.

The school, election and court policy shifts have long been part of the conservative wish list for reforming state government into a smaller and less costly package. The debt proposal is designed to calm jittery bond markets that have downgraded the state’s credit rating after deep tax cuts that weren’t matched by spending cuts.

Brownback was combative on school finance in the wake of a special three-judge court’s recent ruling that state funding for education is unconstitutionally low.

“For decades now, Kansas has struggled under a school finance formula which is designed not to be understood, to frustrate efforts at accountability and efficiency,” he said. “A formula designed to lock in automatic, massive increases in spending unrelated to actual student populations or improved student achievement.”

Quoting from the judges’ ruling, Brownback said he agreed with the court panel that “one cannot classify the school financing structure as reliably constitutionally sound.”

Instead, the governor said, “it is time for a new school finance formula.”

“My suggestion to you is simple, and I believe necessary — a timeout in the school finance wars.” Brownback did not give details but said it “should reflect real-world costs and put dollars in classrooms with real students, not in bureaucracy and buildings and gimmicks.”

About an hour before Brownback’s speech began, members of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, began to gather at the Capitol.

Randy Mousley, president of the United Teachers of Wichita, accused Brownback of “talking out of both sides of his mouth” on the issues and said the governor wanted to “dismantle public education.”

Bond ratings

In a message aimed straight at Wall Street, Brownback proposed a constitutional amendment to put the state’s creditors first in line for payment from the state’s dwindling money supply.

Both of the major bond-rating firms, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, have downgraded Kansas’ credit rating since the governor and Legislature made sweeping tax cuts over the past two years.

A constitutional amendment would ensure that bond payments would be made and the state would have to cut public services rather than default on its debts.

“Kansans know the importance of a promise, whether to friends, family or a business,” Brownback said. “And recognizing that promise, they pay their debts on time and in full. The Kansas Constitution should reflect that as well.”

The Brownback tax plan lowered income tax bracket rates and exempted the owners of about 190,000 businesses from having to pay income tax on their profits.

Brownback vowed to keep the state on its “march to zero income taxes,” a course that has substantially reduced state revenues and created projections for deep deficits this year and next.

He did not say whether his budget, coming Friday, would include any tax increases.

The governor said he remains committed to zeroing out the state income tax because “states with no income tax consistently grow faster than those with high income taxes.”

“There may be some who consider this course too bold. Well, I’m the sort of guy who would have sent Alex Gordon from third base.”

That was a reference to a pivotal play in the last inning of last year’s World Series, when the Royals star ended up stranded at third instead of risking a close play at the plate for a tying run.

Court changes

Brownback also promised to take another run at a constitutional amendment that would give the governor authority to pick state Supreme Court justices, with the consent of the Senate.

The state now picks justices using what is called the “merit system,” in which a commission of lawyers and lay people submits three names and the governor makes the final selection.

The Legislature already changed the selection process for the state Court of Appeals, but changing it for the Supreme Court would require a constitutional amendment.

Democrats and moderate Republicans who favor keeping the merit system think they will have enough votes to keep Brownback and his allies from getting the amendment through the House this year.

Brownback also embraced efforts to change when Kansans vote in local elections.

He said turnout for municipal elections runs about 10 percent, a fraction of those who come to the polls for state and national elections in the fall.

“That does not honor our values of wanting higher voter participation,” Brownback said.

Critics of the proposed change say it would bring high-power party politics to what are currently nonpartisan elections, and potentially bury the local candidates and issues under a long list of national, state, county and judicial offices.

Democrat rebuttal

Legislative reaction was largely split along philosophical lines. Conservatives lavished praise on the speech. Democrats and moderate Republicans disagreed with many of the ideas presented.

Conservatives embraced Brownback’s proposal to revamp the school finance formula that he criticized for locking in massive spending increases on education.

Brownback targeted a series of funding weightings that provide more money to schools depending on about a dozen factors.

Some conservative lawmakers blame those weightings for inflating the student population because students are counted more than once for funding purposes.

“We have fictitious students,” said state Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Leawood Republican. “It is a flawed formula that’s really designed to deceive the public and needs to be fixed.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka argued that Brownback and his conservative supporters are using the school funding formula to hide the fact that the governor elected not to restore tens of millions in federal stimulus money for education in 2011.

A Topeka school teacher, Hensley lashed out at the governor’s proposal to overhaul school finance.

“That’s another way of saying ‘Let’s pass the buck to local school boards and taxpayers to pay more for their schools,’” he said.

“The school finance formula is fine as it is. It’s just been historically underfunded.”

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