Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a five-part series from the Topeka Capital-Journal on government transparency in Kansas.
Gov. Sam Brownback squared shoulders of a dark suit and peered out at members of the Kansas Legislature before delivering a punch line accurately conceived to foment applause.
What the governor didn’t say at this moment in his 2015 State of the State speech turned out to be of more lasting relevance.
“We will continue our march to zero on income taxes,” Brownback said in the January speech, triggering a standing ovation by dozens of Republicans, led by Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ray Merrick.
His commitment was profound. Everyone in the room knew the state was staring down the barrel of a revenue shortfall exceeding $700 million. The governor and GOP allies had anchored winning campaigns on the economic promise of a shrinking income tax. They were looking for magic bullets enabling them to simultaneously preach low-tax gospel and avoid harrowing votes on tax hikes to fill the cash crater.
Brownback, who forcefully deflected assertions in the 2014 election that his tax policy threatened to bankrupt the government, absorbed loyalists’ good vibe with little emotion. As accolades reverberated in the ornate House chamber, he paused only to sip from a small cup before resuming.
“We’ll do this because,” his eyes darting stage left, “states with no income tax consistently grow faster than those with higher income taxes.”
Quickly holding up both hands in a defensive posture, Brownback acknowledged skeptics’ opinion that doubling down on tax reform passed in 2012 and 2013 could be perilous. To emphasize willingness to roll the dice while others timidly blinked, the governor invoked the image of a Kansas City Royals outfielder stopping at third base rather than racing toward home in the ninth inning of the deciding game — KC was down by one run — in last season’s World Series.
Brownback declared: “There might be some who consider this course too bold. I’m the sort of guy who would have sent Alex Gordon from third base.”
Again, applause and cheers. In hindsight, based on objective analysis, Gordon probably would have failed to score on the play.
Of course, many of the state’s 125 representatives and 40 senators at that State of the State speech walked out of the chamber thinking the governor made a gutsy, winning call on taxes. Documents in existence but not yet disclosed to lawmakers showed his plan to be a whisper rather than a scream. His official budget, made public a day after his speech, offered to nick the rate on the lower of two income tax brackets by 0.004 percent.
Woven into the budget, but not the speech, was Brownback’s strategy to delay income tax cuts already passed by the Legislature unless overall revenue expanded.
Another secret concealed in the budget was a reference to the governor seeking $100 million annually in new revenue by nearly tripling the cigarette tax to $2.29 per pack and boosting the assessment on liquor, wine and beer to 12 percent from 8 percent.
Sidestepping weighty policy details has been a thread in the handful of speeches Brownback delivered to open each of the Legislature’s sessions since sworn in during January 2011. Some members of his legislative audience said Kansas’ chief executive appeared more interested in seizing prime-time praise than delivering a for-better-or-worse appraisal of state government.
It wasn’t always so.
“In my time, I don’t believe that was an issue,” said John Carlin, a Democrat who served as House speaker and for two terms as Kansas governor. “I was in the Legislature eight years. I listened to eight of them. I gave eight of them. It was a different time. Politics was much more straightforward.”
The temporary information gaps created by Brownback have been widely felt. It isn’t just the public and Democrats isolated from prompt insight into the Republican governor’s strategy. Fellow conservatives said they operate in the dark at State of the State speeches.
“I’m not getting information,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican who leveled similar criticism at Brownback’s Democratic predecessors. “In my opinion, it’s a political show.”
Several Republican and Democratic legislators expressed interest in breaking with tradition and inviting governors to present each new state budget to legislators before the annual speech.
Opt for status quo
In preparation for his sixth State of the State speech in January, Brownback appears content to retain the vision-first, budget-later approach.
“The purpose of the State of the State address is to outline the governor’s overarching vision for the state and to outline his major priorities for making Kansas the best state in the nation to raise a family and grow a business,” said Eileen Hawley, the chief spokesperson for the governor.
Hawley said the annual speeches were followed the next day with briefings by administration officials to the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Ways and Means Committee.
At the same time, she said, detail of the governor’s budget and a corresponding narrative are made accessible online.
“The information is generally posted within 12 hours of the governor’s State of the State address providing legislators and the public timely access to the full budget information,” Hawley said.
Several days after the State of the State speech, she said, the Brownback administration’s budget staff make themselves available to smaller groups of legislators to answer questions. Briefings for Statehouse reporters were discontinued in the Brownback era.
In 2011, Brownback created a delayed shock wave by deciding not to mention in his first State of the State speech a decision to slash $10 million from community mental health facilities providing treatment to 70,000 Kansans. He hid the withholding of $5 million in grants for therapy to 5,000 children with severe emotional disorders.
Both recommendations conflicted with a theme accentuated by the governor in that address.
He said: “To Kansans looking to leave our state to find opportunity so your families may thrive, to Kansas children who live in poverty and despair, please know that the courage, humanity and hope of Kansas are not lost.”
Brownback also said he would submit a budget to “provide school districts with more overall state funding.” Some legislators assumed he was raising base aid for K-12 students. In reality, he was simply employing new math. Much of what was touted by the Brownback administration as higher spending on children reflected the first-time inclusion of state contributions to teacher retirement accounts.
In 2012, Brownback proposed in the State of the State speech a reduction in individual income tax rates and a repeal of the tax on “most small business income.” He promised the idea would create jobs among small businesses. He didn’t touch upon a series of potential consequences that have cast doubt on wisdom of the business tax overhaul.
Documents from the 2013 tax year showed Kansas companies with a net income greater than $250,000 pocketed $122 million of the $205 million surrendered by the state due to changes in business tax law. That means 1.8 percent of qualifying businesses absorbed nearly 60 percent of the benefit.
Owners of Kansas companies with less than $25,000 in annual earnings — 81 percent of eligible businesses — avoided paying $28 million in income taxes but the new law blocked them from writing off $52 million in losses.
The Republican governor’s speech to the House and Senate in January 2013 emphasized a belief Kansas was a special place where people persisted through adversity.
“Where others choose to raise taxes, we will lower them so our people have more money, not the government,” Brownback said.
He said in this State of the State presentation that Kansas ought to keep the statewide sales tax “flat” at 6.3 percent. He did so without noting maintenance of that rate would technically constitute a tax increase.
Moderate Republicans and Democrats, weary of recession-driven budget cuts, had voted in 2010 to raise the state sales tax from 5.3 percent to 6.3 percent for three years. It would reset to 5.7 percent at midnight June 30, 2013. If the law was changed as Brownback sought, the higher-than-anticipated rate would take effect at 12:01 a.m. July 1, 2013.
Freezing the upper rate would have scored Brownback about $260 million annually to help compensate for lowering income taxes. The final deal was 6.15 percent, but that lasted just two years. The 2015 Legislature and Brownback raised the rate to 6.5 percent.
The governor also excluded from that State of the State speech an intention to more than double withdrawals from the revenue stream flowing into the Kansas Department of Transportation. Buried in his budget was a request to seize $265 million annually.
He did so after promising in 2011 to avoid raids on the “Bank of KDOT” after snatching $200 million from the agency.
Surge in spending
Brownback’s title of the 2014 State of the State speech was “Kansas Renaissance.” It spelled out an agenda designed to answer 10 years of “higher taxes, more spending and bigger government” in the state.
“Our challenge is to take this restored growth and fiscal responsibility and make its benefits real for families across our state,” Brownback said. “Our dependence is not on big government but it’s on a big God, who loves us and lives within us.”
The governor’s budget blueprint rolled out the next day conflicted with a core message in the speech.
He proposed raising state government spending in that fiscal year by $30 million above the level approved by the 2013 Legislature. He also pushed for a $429 million surge in spending in the next fiscal year. A majority of it made whole the state corrections department budget, which was previously vetoed by Brownback.
The governor also chose not to address projections from the Kansas Legislative Research Department the state’s tax revenue shortfalls would eventually create a yawning deficit. That reality struck in November, far earlier than analysts predicted.
Brownback did tout an “affordable” plan whereby the state would pick up the $16 million tab to begin phasing in all-day kindergarten statewide. The five-year cost, he said, was $81 million. The Kansas State Department said the actual cost would be $244 million. The Legislature rejected the idea.
Tipping the scale
Brownback, as well as Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, faced significant financial challenges that political image shapers might loathe to dwell upon in State of the State speeches, said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University. There is public relations logic to stepping over the bad stuff, he said.
“Why step into a headline in a State of the State speech with news that might not be so good?” he said. “Now, in terms of transparency, it’s a dubious tactic.”
Transitioning to a format in which legislators received the Kansas governor’s budget before the State of the State speech would offer lawmakers a better opportunity to place in context a vision of the future.
“Transparency is not just making speeches. It’s allowing people to verify what you’re saying,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. To do otherwise, he said, “invites distrust.”
Senate President Wagle, the Republican from Wichita, said governors earned the right at the ballot box to speak directly once a year about the state government. Sometimes that results in differences between messages contained in State of the State speeches and contents of budget materials distributed later, Wagle said.
“Yes,” she said, “I have been disappointed many times over different things said in speeches and what was proposed in budgets.”
House Democrat John Wilson, of Lawrence, said flipping the script so budgets were submitted before the speech was an idea worthy of exploring.
“If you’re proud of the work you’re doing,” Wilson said, “you should be proud to have people looking at that and taking a critical eye.”