Gov. Sam Brownback, poised to leave Kansas after a generation of dominating its politics, on Tuesday called for steep infusions of money into public schools — spurring fellow Republicans to accuse him of raising hopes with a “fairy tale.”
Brownback said the state can add $600 million over the next five years — without a tax hike.
The push to spend more comes in response to a Kansas Supreme Court order. In his State of the State address to lawmakers on Tuesday, the governor called for a change to the state constitution to keep the courts out of future education politics.
“We must,” Brownback said, “stop the never-ending cycle of litigation.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning called the idea of adding $600 million “personally insulting.”
He’s among staunch conservatives in the Kansas Legislature who — after a long and contentious session — ultimately parted ways with Brownback last June to hike taxes and plug a $900 million void in the state budget.
Denning said, even without more spending on schools, Kansas is on track toward a budget shortfall .
“This is reckless,” he said. “He’s given everybody a sense of false hope that he’s just solved the school issue.”
Brownback frustrated Denning and other Republicans last spring by fighting against any tax hikes. It tore at a relationship between legislative leaders and the governor that had already frayed in the years before. Ultimately, they revolted and scrounged the votes needed to override a Brownback veto.
Tuesday’s speech figures to be one of Brownback’s last high-profile moments as governor. President Donald Trump chose him as the next ambassador for religious freedom, a nomination re-entered this week and that could soon move him from Topeka.
“I have to question how this proposal is any more than a feel-good talking point on the governor’s way out the door,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican who advocated for a five-year $750 million school funding increase last year but found no support from Brownback.
Brownback offered no hints Tuesday on where the money for his $600 million plan will come from. His administration’s budget proposal will emerge Wednesday.
Denning predicted the governor wants to divert even more money from the state’s depleted highway funding and from payments into its pension system, which already falls $8 billion short of what it will need to pay for state employee retirements.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman doubted Brownback’s tax hike-free school spending approach.
“I’m not seeing how that’s possible at this time without drastically hurting other core functions of government,” the Republican said.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Democrat, said Brownback’s vision for the state should have included expanding Medicaid to combat illness and poverty, shoring up the pension system and paving Kansas roads.
“We need to address the transportation issues,” she said. “Roads are not being maintained, bridges are not being maintained.”
Brownback’s eighth State of the State address found the chief executive sounding almost wistful and proud at times, extolling the state’s quail, its biking trails and its falling obesity rate.
Despite dismal popularity numbers at the close of his time in office, he described his years in Kansas politics as “a successful, long journey.”
- Touted lower unemployment rates and the drop in child poverty from 19 percent to 14 percent over five years.
The Brownback administration draws a link between its welfare policies, increases in people working and decreases in childhood poverty, but that connection is a point of debate with advocacy groups.
- Praised the wind industry.
“I dream of a future Kansas exporting wind electricity across America,” he said.
Brownback opposed attempts in recent years by the fossil fuel industry to repeal incentives that led to a boom in wind energy production.
- Rattled off business and recreational facilities completed last year, such as a milk-drying plant in Garden City — largest in the country — and the 117-mile Flint Hills Nature Trail. And boasted of lower infant mortality.
- Said Kansas saw 17,000 fewer abortions in the past six years than it had in the previous six years.
“We must not go back now,” he said.
Brownback signed several anti-abortion laws during his tenure, including some of the most stringent restrictions in the country. Among them, a 2015 ban on certain second-trimester abortions.
- Threw his weight behind the Kansas State Board of Education’s goals to graduate significantly higher numbers of high school students and send them to colleges and tech schools.
A fine enough aspiration, said lobbyist Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards. But he noted that that some of the targets haven’t been reached in any state — and that $600 million might not be enough to make them happen.
- Called for Kansas schools to pay teachers better than all its neighboring states. Currently pay is better than two of Kansas’ four neighbors. Educators have long called for higher pay, warning that parts of the state are experiencing teacher shortages.
- Spoke wistfully of his youth and decades-long career in Kansas. He recalled a Ford pick-up truck the then-eager politician-to-be drove, its “three-on-the-tree” manual transmission that shifted gears from a lever mounted on the steering column and the advent “traveling the back roads of Kansas.”
In the years since those days in the Future Farmers of America, he went to Congress and came back. He became governor, dramatically lowered taxes, saw the state budget slip into crisis, won re-election and watched his approval ratings circle the drain.
But in what was essentially his farewell to the legislature, Brownback spoke gratefully of the people he met and the changes he engineered.
“I have,” he said, “been blessed.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.