By John Celock
In a State of the State address delivered hours before President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) focused on taking several attacks on the president.
Brownback used his annual address to the Legislature to criticize Obama’s proposal to close a facility housing terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and house the prisoners in the United States, along with taking shots at the Affordable Care Act. The attacks on Obama come in between sections of the address where Brownback outlines his own legislative agenda, including changing the state’s judicial selection system and education funding formula, along with promoting his own economic and welfare record.
“Every member of the Kansas congressional delegation, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and I each stand at the ready to thwart every action the president takes to transfer terrorists to Kansas,” Brownback said in the speech about a proposal to house the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.
Brownback and the state’s all Republican congressional delegation have long opposed moving the prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay and housing them at Fort Leavenworth. Members of the Republican-controlled state Legislature have also voiced their opposition to a move of the prisoners to Kansas.
The attack on the prisoner transfer proposal came after Brownback said that he has done a better job at responding to terrorism than Obama. He said that Obama has “refused to lead” in protecting the country. Saying that the president “is unwilling to take simple actions to improve our security.”
“He has prioritized his agenda and the feelings of the radical Islamic terrorists over the safety of Americans,” Brownback said.
Brownback said that he is asking lawmakers to increase funding to arm and train new personnel to provide new security at the state’s National Guard facilities. He also reiterated his earlier call for Obama not to accept Syrian refugees until new screening procedures could be put in place. Over 30 governors from both parties have made a similar call on the refugee program, following the terrorist attack in Paris last year.
Brownback also took aim at Obama’s health care plan, saying, “Obamacare is failing” and instead promoting his own Medicaid program, KanCare. Brownback said in his speech that the state has saved almost $1 billion with the KanCare program, which has turned over management of the Medicaid program to three private insurance plans. Democrats have long been critical of the program, saying that it has hurt low income Kansans and increased waiting lists.
Democrats and moderate Republicans have called on Brownback to accept the federal Medicaid expansion, which is part of the Affordable Care Act. Medicaid expansion advocates have said the program will help the state’s health care industry, including rural hospitals. Brownback and Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives have opposed the Medicaid expansion.
In his speech, Brownback turned the tables and blamed the Affordable Care Act for raising health care costs, saying that has hurt rural hospitals. He said Medicare reimbursements have been cut by the federal law. He said that he has tasked Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R), a physician and his health care point person, to head up a working group on rural health care in the state.
“I believe this working group should have frontline stakeholders involved, including a
rural hospital administrator and a rural physician at the same table as top policy makers,” Brownback said.
Brownback used the beginning of his speech to say that his economic record, including his business tax cuts has grown the state economy. He said that the state has seen the growth of 78,000 private sector jobs and its lowest unemployment rate in 14 years. He also said that new filings for businesses has grown by 15 percent. Under the Brownback tax plan, LLCs do not need to pay state income taxes and the owners of LLCs are exempt from personal income taxes.
The Brownback tax plan has been a major point of contention in Kansas politics, with opponents saying it has caused the state’s budget woes and deficits. During last year’s record long legislative session, lawmakers struggled to piece together a tax plan to fill the budget hole, settling on a plan that raised the state’s sales tax. Brownback did not address the sales tax plan in the address.
Rep. Mark Hutton (R-Wichita) has filed legislation to change the LLC tax in this year’s legislative session, similar to a push he made during the tax debate last year. Observers have indicated that the Hutton plan is unlikely to pass this year.
Brownback reiterated calls from last year’s State of the State address for lawmakers to rewrite the school aid program. During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers replaced the old formula with a two-year block grant program, which is the subject of pending litigation in front of the state Supreme Court. Lawmakers have convened a committee to study the state’s education system, including a new funding plan.
Brownback said that he wants to see more of the $4 billion in state education spending go towards instruction.
“That’s highly inefficient, if not immoral, denying Kansans from putting their education dollars were they want it…behind a good teacher,” he said “I call on the legislature to design a new education funding system that puts more of our money into instruction. That provides bonuses for exceptional teachers and recognizes their true value to our future and the souls of our students.”
Brownback’s education plans have long been opposed by the Kansas National Education Association and parent groups. Education funding was the key issue of his 2014 Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, raised during his campaign, citing a need to move away from the Brownback proposals.
The 2016 state legislative races are shaping up to be another referendum on conservative GOP education policies. Many of the Democratic and moderate Republican challengers that have emerged are teachers or have ties to education related groups.
Brownback also reiterated his call for overhauling the selection process for the state Supreme Court, by replacing the current judicial nominating commission, which is picked by members of the state bar, with a system that allows the governor to pick his or her own nominee. Brownback has done battle with the court over the issue of education funding in recent years. The governor has achieved the ability to bypass the commission over nominees to the state Court of Appeals, but the state constitution requires the commission’s involvement for the Supreme Court.
Brownback also called on lawmakers to make fixes to a local government property tax cap that was passed last year. Under the cap, any local government seeking to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation would have to seek voter approval. There have been calls to reduce the amount of exemptions to local spending that are exempt from the cap.
Brownback, one of the most anti-abortion governors in the nation, also said waded into the national Planned Parenthood debate, saying that he has directed the Health and Environment Secretary Susan Mosier to work to prevent funding from the state’s Medicaid program going to Planned Parenthood. He also called on lawmakers to pass legislation on the issue.
Planned Parenthood has been under fire from conservative groups since videos surfaced last year, reportedly showing Planned Parenthood leaders saying that they accept funds for fetal parts from abortions. Federal law bans the acceptance of funds for the fetal tissue, except to cover the costs related to the shipping of the tissue. Planned Parenthood has denied the allegations and said the tapes have been doctored.
Kansas Democrats took opposition to the speech. State House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) tweeted out a series of quotes disagreeing with Brownback. He said that Brownback’s legacy was “a failure” and was critical of Brownback’s record on the economy and education. He also criticized Brownback’s work last year to allow for the state to sweep money out of the state transportation trust fund to the general fund.
Burroughs said he believes that Kansans feel the state is “headed in the wrong direction” under Brownback.
“Kansans are not satisfied with the path the Governor and the Republican majority in the Kansas Legislature has forced our state down,” Burroughs said.
Brownback remained upbeat about the state during the speech, calling on lawmakers to work together in what is likely to be a contentious election year legislation session.
“Maybe our forefathers were closer to right than we thought. What if God is bigger than we can think and we actually are smaller than we can believe?” he said. “Wouldn’t that give us the proper awe of a sunset and thankfulness for our lives and blessings? With that in mind, I invite each of us to be thankful and enjoy the chance to serve our fellow citizens in such a wonderful role. To also think more highly of others than we do of ourselves — even if they are of a different political persuasion.”