TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget sparked immediate backlash Wednesday as members of his own party questioned the wisdom of his proposed massive increase in spending on K-12 education he promised would not be accompanied by a tax increase.
Brownback’s budget director Shawn Sullivan presented a budget plan to the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committees that would phase in $600 million in K-12 education spending and boost other departments. Sullivan took fire from legislators over the budget he said would become more challenging to fund in coming years.
“I think we’re under water in 2020 if nothing else bad happens to us,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said.
Brownback’s K-12 plan, announced at his State of the State address, was the most controversial element of his budget. It would dedicate another $513 million to schools, phased in during five years. It adds to the $87 million in spending legislators passed for next school year. The plan would put approximately $200 million in schools next year and $100 million in each year following.
He addressed that controversy in a statement after top Republican legislators shared skepticism the state could sustain such spending without either tax increases or deep cuts in other parts of the budget in the future.
“While I recognize the proposed budget has drawn criticism from legislators on both sides of the aisle, complying with the Supreme Court’s school finance decision is not optional,” Brownback said. “I support the rule of law, and I will not stand to see schools closed because of inaction on our part.”
Brownback said “the court should not substitute its decision for that of the Legislature” when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state’s current school funding plan unconstitutional in October.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, fired back with a statement calling Brownback’s administration hypocritical for its denouncement last year of excessive spending on the part of the Legislature. Brownback accused legislators of spending on a wish list of budget items.
“The governor — despite borrowing and delaying payments — chose to spend over $100 million in new spending on top of $600 million in increased funding for schools,” Wagle said. “This budget pays for the Brownback/Colyer wish list on the backs of working Kansans.”
The budgets for this year and next balance only by further delaying state payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and drawing from the Kansas Department of Transportation. If legislators want to stop sweeping and delaying those funds, they’ll face a budget hole in 2020 even without a hike in school spending.
“This is not balanced, and we’re going to have to find a way to balance the budget,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican and chair of the House Appropriations committee.
Rep. J.R. Claeys said he was frustrated Brownback’s budget likely would continue taking highway funds and delaying KPERS payments.
“I suppose potholes might slow our kids down as they move to Texas,” Claeys said.
“Not wanting a tax increase played a large role in stretching it out over a five-year proposal,” Sullivan said. “The Supreme Court may not accept that.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he wasn’t sure the court would accept the long five-year phase-in period. Hensley criticized the lack of detail on how the state will afford the increase.
“It’s easy to talk about $600 million, more money for schools, but it’s very difficult to try to decide how you’re going to come up with the revenue in order to do that.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said she thought $600 million was a good starting point, but doubted the sincerity of Brownback’s proposal. She said it seemed like a “parting shot” from the governor.
Brownback might not remain governor throughout the legislative session that began Monday. He’s been renominated by President Donald Trump to serve as an international ambassador of religious freedom, but has struggled to secure confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Sullivan said the Brownback plan would add $34 million in spending during the current fiscal year and leave the state government with a projected $266 million ending balance on June 30. In the next fiscal year, Brownback proposed to boost state spending by $290 million and leave $150 million in June 2019.
Brownback’s education proposal calls for Kansas public school districts to increase average teacher salaries above the average in each of the four surrounding states by mid-2019. The Kansas average, Sullivan said, stood at $47,755. He expects the state to easily top Missouri’s average of $47,900 before attempting to surpass the Nebraska average of $51,380.
The governor also recommended new state spending on schools be used to add 150 school counselors or psychologists each year.
He suggested every Kansas high school student be offered 15 hours of dual high school-college credit at no cost. If 80 percent of Kansas high school students participated in the program, it would cost approximately $24 million.
Brownback’s budget would double to $10 million the state’s investment in the National Institute for Aviation Research, grow from $1.7 million to $5 million the contribution to the National Center for Aviation Training and allocate $1 million to add 500 registered apprenticeships through the Kansas Department of Commerce.
In addition, Brownback would earmark $2.1 million to expand college tuition assistance for the Kansas National Guard. He would add 13 positions at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation for $1.3 million. The budget includes $1.5 million for 2.5-percent raises to the 1,300 non-university state employees left out of previous pay-hike legislation. It would add $8.7 million to sustain and expand raises to workers in the Kansas Department of Corrections.