TOPEKA — Electing more than a dozen new Democrats in 2016 and raising taxes in 2017 was a start, but in 2018, the House’s top Democrat said Kansas should move past Gov. Sam Brownback entirely.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, delivered a rebuttal Tuesday to Brownback’s annual State of the State speech, praising the work Democrats and moderate Republicans did last year and advocating continued bipartisanship. They also called for increased funding for K-12 schools — a proposal Brownback made in his speech — and several progressive priorities.
“2018 presents us with another year of incredible opportunity to continue the work we’ve begun,” Ward said.
Last session, legislators overrode Brownback to roll back his 2012 tax cuts with a bill expected to bring in another $1.2 billion over two years. They also added another $293 million in K-12 education spending.
“That was only possible because a bipartisan coalition said enough is enough and end the fiscal insanity,” Ward said.
This session, legislators will have to come up with more money for schools. In its most recent decision in the Gannon school finance case, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state’s education spending plan unconstitutional. Ward said that was the “most important issue facing Kansas this year.”
In his speech, Brownback proposed another $600 million for K-12 schools phased in over five years, but did not say where the state would find the money.
“I think that’s a good start,” Hensley said. “We don’t have the details, obviously. We don’t know where he’s going to spend the money. We don’t know how he’s going to raise the money.”
Republican legislators were outraged at Brownback’s proposal after he criticized them last year for joining with Democrats to pass the tax increase.
“There is no way to pay for it without more structural changes to the budget,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said.
Brownback also proposed amending the Kansas Constitution to avoid future school finance litigation. The Constitution currently requires lawmakers to suitably fund education and has served as the legal basis for the Gannon case.
“We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do away with Article Six,” Hensley said. “The court has done its job. Now it’s time to do our job.”
Democrats also advocated expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income Kansans, investing in job training programs, increasing transparency and addressing sexual harassment with strong leadership. Hensley said the state needed to invest in roads and fully fund its highway system.
Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said legislators would have to starve pensions, highways and other portions of the budget to fund Brownback’s school proposal.
In 2018, Ward said legislators would have the opportunity to continue their work.
“We know Kansas works best when we work together,” Ward said. “But the progress we made last year is at risk. There is a danger of the Legislature falling back into the traditional partisanship that originally got us into this mess.”
It wasn’t clear last fall whether Brownback would still be in office to give the State of the State address. He awaits confirmation for a job in President Donald Trump’s administration and has caught heat for passing key responsibilities to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, but Hensley said that shouldn’t distract legislators.
“We shouldn’t allow this confusion or chaos stop the Kansas Legislature from doing its job,” Hensley said.
Ward urged strong leadership and vowed Democrats would be “willing to work with anyone committed to solving the problems facing our state.”
“2018 is the year that we move past Brownback and his failed experiments, continue to restore and move forward a strong and successful Kansas,” Ward said. “This will only happen if we work together.”