TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback layered the final State of the State speech of his career Tuesday with personal reflections on faith and Kansas’ innate goodness with an explosive proposal to add $600 million in state aid to public schools that was fiercely denounced by Republicans as financially irresponsible.
It was Democrats in the Legislature who offered the most upbeat assessment of the governor’s support for state investment in K-12 education.
Brownback recommended the 2018 Legislature allocate the additional money to schools over the next five years, but rejected the idea of any form of tax increase and avoided sharing ideas for financing the package. Lawmakers are under pressure from the Kansas Supreme Court to correct unconstitutional flaws in the amount and manner state aid is provided K-12 schools.
“This multi-year approach will provide the time necessary for school districts to plan and spend this additional money more effectively,” Brownback said. “My proposal does not include a tax increase.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the governor’s recommendations for public education and changes in other areas of the budget — due to be released Wednesday — were a brutal parting gift to legislators from a governor eager to join the administration of President Donald Trump.
The 2017 Legislature, despite Brownback’s veto, voted to raise the state income tax by $1.2 billion over two years to balance the state budget after years of revenue shortfalls. In essence, the House and Senate repealed Brownback’s cornerstone supply-side tax policy of 2012.
Private budget briefings for Republican lawmakers showed Brownback prefers to reduce state payments to the pension system and permanently sweep highway funding at the same time he intends to drop a pile of cash on schools, Denning said.
“I’m really pissed off,” Denning said after the governor’s speech. “I worked hard to get the budget in balance. We did all the heavy lifting last year without any of his help. In fact, he blocked us on every path, and now he’s just putting the screws to us for next year. That must be his parting gift to us for overturning his tax policy.”
Brownback has been renominated by President Donald Trump to a post as ambassador of religious freedom, but it’s unclear when the U.S. Senate might vote on him.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said the governor’s budget scheme appeared driven by political interests and crafted to “elicit good feelings and applause lines on his way out the door.” She said the school funding piece rings hollow given the governor’s bitter opposition to past spending increases for education.
“I like puppies, and I like unicorns, but you know, I don’t know what the substance of this proposal actually looks like,” she said.
Sen. Ty Masterson, who helps lead a group of conservative House and Senate Republicans, said the governor’s budget didn’t add up.
“I don’t understand where the money is going to come from,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said questions remained about Brownback’s blueprint for schools, including where the revenue would come from, how it would be spent in schools and whether the Supreme Court would accept a five-year plan to rectify a constitutional flaw.
“I think five years is too much,” Hensley said. “I don’t think the court will like it.”
Brownback said the taxpayers of Kansas should realistically expect the new funding to improve the state’s high school graduation rate to 95 percent and raise the portion of students who participate in post-secondary education or join the military to 75 percent. Extra funding should be used to improve teacher salaries, expand the number of school counselors and psychologists and open opportunities for students to take college-level courses, he said.
“Kansans expect to see students in every school in our state thrive and achieve, particularly out students who the court cited as being inadequately served under our current funding,” Brownback said.
Brownback endorsed a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would recast the state’s obligations to public school students.
He devoted portions of his speech to statistics touting the administration’s policy accomplishments. He said a record 1.4 million Kansans were employed and the state’s child poverty rate has dipped to the lowest level since the last deep recession.
“Our state is a marvelous place full of beauty and wonder,” Brownback said. “Our sky is our mountain and our sunsets bear the signature of God. To those who can see it, Kansas is truly amazing.”
Brownback said he was blessed to have met compelling people during his journey in political life. He recalled a conversation with 107-year-old World War I veteran Leo Lange, of Marysville. Lange told him the country had become more prosperous but doubted people where happier.
“Our material wealth had progressed in his lifetime, but has our happiness kept pace?” Brownback said. “It’s a good question for us as policy makers.”