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Brownback's plans defy court order on schools

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday called for a fresh round of aggressive cuts in Kansas' income taxes and changes in the state constitution to rein in the judiciary, outlining proposals for a GOP-dominated Legislature in defiance of both a budget shortfall and a court order on education funding.

Brownback also used his State of the State address to defend massive income tax reductions enacted last year and reaffirm that his goal is to eventually eliminate income taxes. But his plan for further reductions is tied to a proposal to keep the state's sales tax at its current rate, rather than letting it drop in July as previously planned.

He spoke to a joint session of the Legislature less than a week after a three-judge panel in Shawnee County ruled that the state must boost its annual aid to public schools by at least $440 million to meet its constitutional responsibility to provide a suitable education for every child. Also, in a move that irritated Brownback's fellow GOP conservatives, the court criticized legislators for claiming the state couldn't afford to spend more on schools while enacting last year's tax cuts to stimulate the economy.

Brownback proposed amending the state constitution to declare that only legislators can determine when education funding is suitable, a proposal many GOP lawmakers are ready to pursue. He also endorsed changing how appellate court members are chosen, and said he could support electing members of the state Supreme Court instead of having them appointed, or modifying the appointment process to give legislators a role.

"When our country seems adrift, Kansas leads to the stars through difficulty," Brownback said, citing the state's motto in his 28-minute address. "Where other governments expand, we grow smaller. Where others choose to grow spending, Kansas grows jobs."

Democrats have long criticized the tax cuts as financially ruinous for the state and favoring the wealthy over working-class Kansans, and they've promised to resist any plan to cancel the sales tax decrease. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said in a response to the governor's speech that lawmakers need to focus on adequately funding schools, "not on efforts to punish our state's judicial branch of government."

And House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said in a post-address news conference, "Instead of treating the Kansas Constitution like a political piqata because some disagreed with a court ruling, the Legislature should refocus its efforts to fully restore the funding cuts that have been made to schools in recent years."

Republicans have supermajorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House, with GOP conservatives in control, giving the governor a good chance of seeing much of his agenda enacted.

Brownback and legislators must close a projected $267 million gap between anticipated revenues and existing spending commitments for the fiscal year beginning July 1 -- a shortfall caused by the income tax cuts enacted last year.

But Brownback said the detailed budget proposals his administration will release Wednesday will erase the shortfall, protect aid to public schools, finance core social services and leave the state with healthy cash reserves. He also said he's proposing a $12 million program for improving third-graders' reading skills.

The governor is breaking with nearly six decades of tradition by proposing a two-year budget that would carry the state through June 2015. He promised that his administration would continue working to make state government more efficient -- and proposed merging the Kansas Turnpike Authority, which operates the state's only toll road, with the state Department of Transportation.

"It is within our reach to reduce taxes," Brownback said. "It is within our reach to balance our budget and meet the needs of our people. Our place, Kansas, will show the path, the difficult path, for America to go in these troubled times."

The powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which backed conservative candidates in last year's election, applauded Brownback's agenda.

But Karen Godfrey, president of the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said it's "hard to fathom" how the state could continue to cut income taxes and adequately finance schools.

Last year, the state reduced individual income tax rates, dropping the top rate to 4.9 percent from 6.45 percent, and eliminated income taxes for the owners of 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses. Brownback wants to cut all individual income tax rates again, dropping the top rate to 3.5 percent, though he didn't say in his speech how quickly he wants the decline to occur.

The Legislature would have to keep the sales tax at its current rate of 6.3 percent. Lawmakers boosted the sales tax in 2010 at the urging of Brownback's predecessor to close a previous budget shortfall but agreed that the rate would drop to 5.7 percent after three years.

The reaction from Republican legislators was mixed, though conservatives endorse Brownback's goal of eliminating income taxes. House Taxation Committee Chairman Richard Carlson of St. Marys said his chamber still may want some reduction in the sales tax, while Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita said, "I think it's a good trade."

Wagle said she expects legislators to move quickly on the proposed constitutional amendments limiting the court's influence over education funding and how appellate court members are chosen.

Under the current judicial selection process, a nominating commission -- with attorneys in the majority -- screens applications for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. The commission names three finalists, the governor makes the appointment and legislators have no role.

Supporters argue that the current system eliminates politics. But Brownback said in his address that it "fails the democratic test." He said he supports either electing appellate court judges or having the governor appoint them, subject to Senate confirmation.

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Associated Press Writer John Milburn also contributed to this report.

Online:

Governor's prepared text for the State of the State address: http://1.usa.gov/S05zg7

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna