Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will deliver his last State of the State address Tuesday in Topeka. He’ll speak to a state that is in much better shape than it was a year ago.
Interestingly, much of that progress has come in spite of Brownback’s presence, not because of it.
The state’s budget is closer to balance because members of the Kansas House and Senate found the courage to raise taxes over the governor’s veto. The decision not only restored some balance and fairness to the Kansas tax code, it also provided revenue to pay for needed state services such as education and safety.
Conservatives predicted the tax increases would harm the state’s economy, costing thousands of jobs. Nothing of the sort happened.
Last January, with many of the core Brownback tax cuts still in place, the unemployment rate in Kansas was 4.1 percent. In November, it was 3.5 percent — a significant drop, even in the wake of the so-called “retroactive” tax hikes approved in 2017.
More Kansans are working than ever before. That’s a credit to legislators who restored fiscal sanity to the state, not to the governor and his supporters.
It’s also a reminder that the economy in Kansas, like that in other states, rises and falls on the strength of the national economy. State lawmakers should understand that now after five years of the failed “shot of adrenaline” experiment.
There is some truth to the argument, which Brownback often repeats, that slumps in oil, aviation and agriculture have left Kansas in a bind. The state’s economy grew at a mediocre 1.5 percent in the second quarter of 2017, half the rate of Missouri.
But there is little state government can do to directly help those industries. Kansas has to wait. And remember: Stronger oil and farm prices would mean higher costs at the pump and checkout line, too.
The state of the state wobbles in other areas. The state’s prisons were roiled with disturbances last year, and a firm plan for replacing Lansing State Prison remains elusive.
Mental health treatment is still a concern, although there has been some recent improvement. Privatized Medicaid has been less successful than hoped. Transportation spending has been curtailed to cover deficits.
In the midst of all of this, public confidence in the state’s biggest endeavor — education — remains strong. By some measures, statewide school performance is healthy. That’s a tribute to the state’s citizens, who highly value education.
Yet the Kansas Supreme Court has said, yet again, that lawmakers have failed to provide enough money for a “suitable” education for the state’s children. The Legislature must fix that problem this year.
Some statehouse conservatives think the answer is to change the state constitution, taking the courts out of the school funding equation. Such a move would be a tragic mistake, one Kansans would reject.
We’re particularly worried that opponents of funding the schools will seek to divide the state by pitting education interests against transportation, or mental health, or public safety, or colleges and universities. That would be wrong.
There are other answers. Additional spending, phased in over time, might be coupled with tax increases for the wealthiest Kansans. We suspect well-to-do Kansans would support such an approach.
The state of the state is getting better. Gov. Sam Brownback is saying goodbye, which is one reason why.