Kansas governor sets vision for state's future
By JOHN MILBURN
TOPEKA -- Gov. Sam Brownback declared Wednesday that Kansas was in the midst of a renaissance, touting tax cuts he championed with the help of the Republican-controlled Legislature will spur economic growth and pay for various initiatives, including his proposal to fund all-day kindergarten.
Brownback, speaking to an annual joint session of the House and Senate, told the mostly Republican audience the tax cuts, enacted in 2012, were generating jobs, stabilizing rural population declines and charting a course for future growth. In prepared remarks, Brownback spoke of creating a state for the yet-to-be-born 3 millionth Kansas resident in the future.
"Today, we are growing and moving forward, but not for the sake of growth alone," Brownback said. "We grow because it helps everyone realize their God-given potential."
Later in the speech, he added, "Our dependence is not on big government, it's on a big God that loves us and lives within us."
But his presumed Democratic challenger, House Minority Leader Paul Davis, said the sweeping income tax reductions have put Kansas on unstable financial grounds and will require deeper cuts in essential programs, including education.
"People are struggling," Davis said. "I think they will say that the picture he painted tonight is not a realistic picture of what the state looks like right now."
Brownback has enjoyed broad support for proposals he's laid out in previous State of the State addresses, in part because conservative Republicans have gained control of both legislative chambers. However, legislators balked last year at his proposal to retain students who lacked reading skills in third grade.
And this year's all-day kindergarten idea, which would spend $16 million in each of the next five years to fully fund the cost, has been assigned to a special House committee to study over concerns about the cost and overall benefit. Brownback said it'd be financed through expected growth in state revenues.
He's already proposed a reading initiative aimed at boosting literacy that's financed through reserve federal funds traditionally earmarked to help needy families pay bills and buy food.
The governor also promised to continue investing in higher education -- despite spending cuts to state universities in 2014 and 2015 that were part of the state budgets approved last year by legislators.
Legislators began the 2014 session Monday and are scheduled to receive a formal briefing on Brownback's budget proposals today. The governor's proposals are viewed as supplemental requests for agencies and not require legislators to rewrite the previous spending agreements.
Davis said the governor's tax cuts were partly to blame for the loss of funding in recent years for public schools and for litigation against the state. Legislators are awaiting a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court on a lawsuit filed in 2010 that could require the state to increase annual spending by more than $440 million. Absent rescinding the 2012 tax cuts, the alternative would be to use the state's dwindling reserves, cut spending for other agencies or ignore the court ruling in its entirety.
"This is far more complicated than political talking points about 'big government' vs. 'small government', " Davis said. "This is about smart government. It's about finding the balance between high-quality schools, low taxes, and a climate that will truly create jobs and help small businesses thrive."
Brownback said the state's top priority is education, and "the constitution empowers the Legislature, the people's representatives, to fund our schools. Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else."
But Davis argued that instead of reinvesting in schools when Kansas recovered from the Great Recession, Brownback pushed for tax cuts that put more of a burden on lower and middle-class residents.
"This choice sent a clear message to parents, teachers, working families and the Kansas Supreme Court," Davis said. "The original goals of the Brownback road map were admirable. But time and again, the numbers just never seem to add up."
Brownback waxed nostalgic, noting new displays in the renovated Statehouse proclaim a line from the Kansas Constitution that "all political power is inherent to the people." He said government had become "omnipresent" while people feel distant from the process.
"Too many decisions are made by unaccountable, opaque institutions," Brownback said in a reference to the judicial branch.
Last session, legislators approved Brownback's desired changes to how judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals are selected by giving him the power to appoint nominees, subject to Senate confirmation.
Kansas Supreme Court justices in attendance declined to comment about Brownback's remarks.