By John Celock
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) pledged to stay the course on tax cuts, while calling for changes to the school finance formula and judicial reform during his annual State of the State address.
During an address to lawmakers Thursday Brownback called for the state Legislature to provide funding to school districts this year while tossing out the state’s 40 year old school funding formula and working to rewrite the new one of the next few years. Brownback also called for the state to continue to zero out the state’s income tax, overhauling the selection of Supreme Court justices and moving local elections to November from April.
“The formula should reflect real world costs and put dollars in the classroom with real students. Not a bureaucracy or gimmicks,” Brownback said. “It should be about promoting student achievement and not bureaucratic games.”
Brownback called for a “time out in the school finance wars” and said the Legislature will need time to re do the formula. Education spending has become one of the most pitched battles in Topeka with the Kansas National Education Association and allied parent groups vocally opposing changes to the school finance formula and calling for increased spending on education.
Brownback touted what he said is an increase in education spending on his watch, a theme which was frequently opposed by the KNEA and Democrats. State courts have called for changes to school spending policy in the state. In a 2014 bill to place more money into school spending following a state Supreme Court order, lawmakers also placed changes to teacher tenure into the law, angering the KNEA.
Brownback called on lawmakers to direct the school funding process for the next two years and place more money into classrooms. He said this change would allow lawmakers more time to study school finance and re do the law.
“Friends it is time for a new school finance formula,” Brownback told lawmakers.
Brownback used his speech to attack the current school finance law, which he said put value on placing more money into schools at a rate higher than student population growth.
“For decades now Kansas has struggled under a school funding formula that was designed not to be understood,” he said.
Brownback’s school finance policies were greeted with applause from his conservative Republican allies, while opposed by Democrats. KNEA members, wearing signature red shirts, packed the Capitol, showing opposition to Brownback. Multiple sources in the House chamber told The Celock Report that KNEA members declined to stand and applaud Brownback when he entered the chamber prior to his speech or First Lady Mary Brownback when she was recognized prior to the speech.
Brownback called for changes to the selection process of state Supreme Court justices, a plan pushed by conservative Republicans for several years. Currently justices are appointed by the governor from a list of three candidates presented to him by a nominating commission primarily chosen by members of the state Bar. Justices stand in statewide retention elections every six years.
Brownback called for either a system similar to the federal model where he would nominate justices with state Senate confirmation or the direct election of Court. Either model would require amending the state Constitution. State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco), the House majority caucus chairman, introduced a bill in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week calling for a change to the federal model.
“We have the least democratic system in America to select Supreme Court justices,” Brownback said.
Brownback also already signed legislation that allows him to select judges of the state Court of Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, by the federal model. Trial court judges are directly elected.
Brownback also called for moving local elections from April to November, saying that it would increase voter participation in the state.
“That does not honor our values of wanting entire voter participation,” he said.
Brownback defended his tax cuts saying they have boosted the state economy, noting that 59,000 jobs have been created under his tenure. He touted a record that included boosting the state pension system and the creation of rural opportunity zones. He used the address to reiterate his call for similar opportunity zones for the state’s urban areas.
Brownback also focused on his changes to the state’s Medicaid program and boosting welfare to work programs.
Brownback acknowledged the declining state revenues and said that the budget he will present to lawmakers tomorrow will be balanced and have more revenue than spending. He said that he will continue to have a budget that cuts waste in government and preserves “core functions of government”.
While Democrats have called for a rollback of the tax cuts, noting the revenue drop since the cuts were enacted, Brownback used the address to double down on the cuts, which has been his signature policy in office.
“We will continue our march to zero income tax,” Brownback said.
Brownback did not offer specifics regarding his budget. State Budget Director Shawn Sullivan is scheduled to present the budget Friday morning to the House and Senate budget committees.
Echoing former President Ronald Reagan, Brownback said the “era of big government is over because it has to be.” He said that government spending needed to be cut to help Kansas families.
“The family budget is more powerful than the government budget. Second a growing economy that is adding private sector jobs can fix the government budget,” Brownback said. “A growing government budget cannot bring more prosperity to its citizens by taking more of their earnings.”
Democrats opposed Brownback’s plans with many criticizing the governor for not supporting Medicaid expansion in the speech. Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita), a frequent Brownback critic and top Democratic spokesman on health and human services policy, took to Twitter during the speech to criticize the governor’s health and human services policies.
State Rep. John Wilson (D-Lawrence), the House Democratic policy chairman, took to Twitter to say that Brownback “picked a fight” with the 28 state House Democrats and the KNEA. He also tweeted his opinion of the speech.
My summary of the gov's speech: students, state employees, and poor people are to blame for our budget crisis. #ksleg
— John Wilson (@wilsonforkansas) January 16, 2015
In the official Democratic response to the speech, state Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley (D-Topeka) decried Brownback’s speech, saying that the tax cuts have hurt the state. He claimed that Brownback was “deceiving” Kansas by not saying the revenue drop prior to the election and by backing the tax cuts on economic growth grounds.
Brownback has said he did not know of the multimillion-dollar revenue drop that was announced by the Department of Revenue a week after the election until the announcement.
“Governor that is an insult to our intelligence,” Hensley said.
Hensley said that if Brownback was running a business, the business would have closed.
“It is time for Governor Brownback to stop blaming others and admit that his budget experiment is a failure,” he said.
Hensley, a public school teacher, called for lawmakers not to “raid the highway fund” and to add funding to education in the state budget. He also said that Kansas residents “understand that strong public schools are the foundation of a strong economy.”
He also focused on the Medicaid expansion, saying that the expansion would help more Kansans receive health care and boost rural hospitals. Hensley said that Kansans want a “bipartisan” approach to governing. Following Hensley’s remarks, he and other Democrats joined KNEA members for an additional event in the Capitol.
Kansas Democratic Party Chairman Joan Wagnon took to Twitter to call Brownback’s proposal on school finance, judicial selection reform and moving local elections “scary.”
Repeal the school finance formula, move local elections to fall and change the way Supreme Justices selected–he says bold, no scary # ksleg
— Joan Wagnon (@JoanWagnon) January 16, 2015
Brownback received backing from conservative Republicans.
“These are the values we were elected on and the governor summarized them nicely tonight,” Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report. “The governor’s vision for our state is one of prosperity, accountability and trust in the people of Kansas to spend their own money rather than government spend it for them.”
Couture-Lovelady praised Brownback’s commitment to judicial reform and for referencing the change to a federal model for Supreme Court selection in the speech.
“I applaud the Governor for voicing his support for reforming the undemocratic selection process for the Supreme Court,” Couture-Lovelady told The Celock Report. “We need an open and transparent process that is accountable to the people of Kansas not selected by a group of lawyers behind closed doors.”
Brownback did use the speech to return to his family theme from his second term inaugural address on Monday and his references to pro-life themes that have dominated his political career.
“We should see human life as sacred,” Brownback said. “Whether at the beginning of life or the end of life, Kansas is the most pro life state in America and we’re not going back.”