Kansas governor proposes $600M boost to school aid
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Departing Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback proposed a big increase in spending on public schools spread over five years in hopes of meeting a court mandate, infuriating fellow Republicans on Tuesday by not saying how he’ll pay for it.
The term-limited conservative GOP governor told legislators during his eighth and final annual State of the State address that he is not proposing a tax increase to pay for the phased-in, $600 million increase in education funding. He is expected to divulge the details Wednesday when his administration releases budget recommendations.
Top Republican legislators were frustrated and skeptical that the state will be able to sustain such spending without either tax increases or deep cuts in other parts of the budget within a few years. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita conservative, derided the result as a “feel-good political budget that doesn’t balance.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Kansas City-area conservative, reacted angrily, calling Brownback’s proposal “insulting.”
“He must not have gotten the memo that we don’t print money in Kansas. We live within our means,” Denning said.
Brownback and his aides had not expected him to be giving this year’s address because President Donald Trump nominated him to serve as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in July. They had anticipated the U.S. Senate confirming the appointment in the fall, triggering Brownback’s resignation and elevating Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to governor.
But the Senate failed to vote on Brownback’s nomination by the end of last year, requiring Trump to nominate him again. The delay has created an awkward transition.
Parts of Brownback’s speech had a valedictory tone, with him discussing people he’d met during his political career and outlining broad “dreams for our state.”
“Kansas is a dreamer’s paradise,” he said.
But legislators were most keenly interested in what he would say about school funding.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the state’s total aid of about $4.3 billion a year to its 286 school districts isn’t sufficient to meet a duty under the state constitution to provide a suitable education for every child. The court mandated more spending even though lawmakers last year phased in a $293 million increase over two years.
The Supreme Court didn’t set a specific spending target but hinted in its decision that spending must rise by as much as $650 million a year. It told lawmakers that a new school funding law must be in place before July.
The court also expressed a growing impatience with delays in boosting spending, and lawmakers already have debated whether it would accept an increase phased in over multiple years.
Bipartisan majorities raised income taxes last year by roughly $600 million a year to help balance the budget while providing extra money for schools. Top GOP leaders see no appetite for raising taxes again — or making deep cuts elsewhere in the budget to shift money to schools.
But the state’s tax collections have exceeded expectations each of the past seven months, and after his speech, Brownback pointed to that growth as a possible source of money for schools.
He also said, “You’re going to have to make very tight things happen in a lot of other places.”
Top Republicans believe the state would also have to short its annual contributions to pensions for teachers and government workers — something it has done in the past to help muddle through its budget problems.
“I don’t see how it works,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from western Kansas.
Brownback also had his speech interrupted twice by a heckler in a Kansas House gallery. The bearded man was escorted out after the second time when he shouted, “What about the slavery in our prisons?” in response to Brownback’s remarks about the state’s anti-slavery past and a call to fight human trafficking.
The governor has seen his popularity wane because of the budget woes that followed aggressive personal income tax cuts he championed in 2012 and 2013 as a potential economic stimulus. He was narrowly re-elected in 2014, but voters turned on his legislative allies in 2016, and the tax increase last year rolled back most of the tax cuts he’d promoted.
In a response prepared before the speech, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, who is running for governor, called 2018 “the year that we move past Brownback and his failed experiments.”
Yet Democratic leaders were far kinder to Brownback’s school funding proposal than top Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said they have to see more details but called it a “good starting point.”
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .