Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Brownback: Legislature, not courts, should decide school funding

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — Starting a new legislative session during an election year and with a state Supreme Court ruling on school finance expected any day, Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday said his conservative Republican policies have helped lift Kansas from the Great Recession.

“Three years in, we are in a much better position,” Brownback said in his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature.

Brownback took a verbal swipe at the Kansas Supreme Court over the school finance case as five of the seven justices sat nearby.

The court is expected to rule soon on a lower court panel ruling that the state has unconstitutionally cut school budgets and must increase education funding by nearly $500 million per year. If the court rules against the state, the question then will become whether the Republican-dominated Legislature will comply with the order or defy the Supreme Court.

Brownback said the Legislature — not the courts — should be in charge of school funding.

He added, “Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else.”

Republican legislators leaped to their feet and applauded, but the justices, including Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, sat expressionless.

State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said she hoped Brownback’s comments and the Republican response meant that the majority party in the Legislature is serious about increasing funding to schools.

Brownback’s likely Democratic opponent, House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence, gave the Democratic response, saying Brownback’s “reckless” tax policies have hurt the state and middle class Kansans who struggle to make ends meet.

“Our schools are suffering, jobs remain scarce, and property taxes are sky-rocketing. Meanwhile, big, politically connected corporations seem to get all the breaks,” Davis said.

On higher education, Brownback gave no indication of what funding level he would propose. Last year, Brownback and Republican legislative leaders reduced higher education spending, including a $13.5 million cut to Kansas University.

“In my budget proposal, I will continue to support our universities, community and technical colleges and I am confident they will produce the next generation of Kansas leaders,” he said.

Brownback reiterated his proposal to provide full state funding for all-day kindergarten.

Democrats said Brownback’s plan was an empty proposal because the governor’s tax cuts had depleted the treasury.

“The reality is there is no money to pay for it,” said state Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence.

State Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said there weren’t a lot of specifics in Brownback’s speech. “It was a rah rah speech,” he said, typical of what other governors have given."

Davis took aim at Brownback’s tax changes. Brownback has pushed through cuts in state income tax rates and eliminated income taxes for nearly 200,000 business owners, but increased the state sales tax while decreasing tax credits and deductions.

“It’s time to change direction,” said Davis, who recorded the Democratic Party message from Hillcrest School, where his mother taught second grade for nearly 20 years and where he went to school.

He said the Brownback tax policy has shifted the tax burden to middle- and low-income Kansans and squeezed funding for schools and social services.

Brownback said that since he took office, the Kansas unemployment rate decreased from 6.9 percent to 5.1 percent. He also said that state government spending is now under control.

“Our dependence is not on Big Government but on a Big God that loves us and lives within us,” he said.