Yael T. Abouhalkah

Go ahead, make Gov. Sam Brownback’s day: Pass higher taxes, or he shoots the schools

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican, is among the frustrated Kansas legislators trying to balance the budget in Topeka. She talked on her cellphone Tuesday during yet another timeout from budget discussions.
Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican, is among the frustrated Kansas legislators trying to balance the budget in Topeka. She talked on her cellphone Tuesday during yet another timeout from budget discussions. AP

In a startling turn of events, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration has revealed last-minute threatened cuts of nearly $200 million to K-12 schools, including Johnson County’s prized districts.

Figuratively, the governor appears willing to shoot the already-beleaguered schools in the foot, making them bear further financial pain because his cherished income tax breaks for businesses have drained money needed to provide crucial state services.

It’s the newest ploy being used by Brownback to force the Kansas Legislature to pass the largest tax increase in state history and close a $400 million budget gap.

On Tuesday, officials in the Kansas City, Kan. ($11 million in potential lost funds), Olathe ($10 million), Shawnee Mission ($8 million) and Blue Valley ($6 million) districts were scrambling to find out what they could do to protect the educational needs of their students.

In addition, higher education leaders were looking at cutbacks of about $50 million.

As the Legislature’s 90-day session entered its record 111th day Wednesday, the biggest fear of educational supporters will be that the House and Senate won’t agree on a budget.

Brownback soon could have the authority to swoop in with across-the-board cuts to state funding for schools and colleges, as well as for social services, prisons and other state-financed programs.

In recent days, the House and Senate have been unable to agree on a package that would include the needed turn of events: repeal of Brownback’s exemptions for businesses, which would make them pay their fair share of taxes.

Instead, Brownback wants to burden 3 million Kansans with a higher sales tax. Indeed, the Senate by the narrowest of margins on Sunday approved a large sales tax increase, along with a cigarette tax hike. The Senate bill also strays off into strange areas, limiting when city and county governments can approve property tax increases without voter approval, for example.

The House properly has refused to consider that package, at least so far.

Thus, an impasse is at hand.

House leaders hope to have a tax-increase package ready to vote on sometime Wednesday. The new threat to school funding may force some legislators to grudgingly go along with higher taxes.

It’s high brinksmanship in Topeka, and it’s hard to know who’s going to win in the end.

So far, though, it’s easy to see that good government is the biggest loser of 2015.

To reach editorial page columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah.

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