TOPEKA — When Gov. Sam Brownback strode out before a bank of television cameras last week to speak about the special legislative session he had just called to address school finance, he did something he doesn’t always do.
He told the Legislature what he wants.
Brownback, the second-term Republican chief executive, faced withering criticism a year ago for his apparent lack of public engagement as the Statehouse became mired in gridlock over how to solve a gaping budget deficit. So far, he is taking a different approach.
The governor made clear lawmakers should boost school funding by $38 million in order to ensure the state’s school funding system passes constitutional muster with the Kansas Supreme Court, which has ruled funds aren’t distributed equitably and has set a June 30 deadline for lawmakers to make changes. Lawmakers will convene June 23.
By publicly expounding the $38 million number, Brownback put himself ahead of other Republican legislative leaders who had not openly endorsed the figure. Brownback did signal lawmakers might need to make other policy changes to garner support for the extra spending — some legislators have floated the idea of a constitutional amendment to restrict the Supreme Court.
The Wednesday news conference struck a different tone than other Brownback appearances.
The governor minimized anti-court rhetoric and stayed away from the most aggressive remarks some lawmakers have deployed against the court.
The early engagement in the legislative process contrasts with how the governor handled the 2015 dispute over the budget. A year ago, lawmakers struggled for weeks to find a way to solve the budget deficit, wrangling over a series of revenue proposals. For much of the spring, Brownback remained silent on what he thought lawmakers should do.
Eventually, he released his own plan, but lawmakers wrestled for two more weeks before coming up with a solution. The plan passed after Brownback appeared at a tense joint House and Senate GOP caucus meeting.
“Last year the environment within the statehouse was just so uncomfortable because we didn’t have leadership from anyone and we were all split into different factions over the tax issue,” said Rep. Steven Becker, R-Buhler.
“I am seeing something different this year from the governor, and I’m very pleased about that. He’s showing some leadership here where we have such an important issue we have to deal with. Time is of the essence.”
The governor’s traditional reluctance to publicly push lawmakers in a particular direction stems from what he says is his respect for the legislative process. He said Wednesday government works best when the branches of government respect each other.
There’s a reason for the design, he said.
“That’s why I try to be very respectful of that legislative process, and they have the power of the purse,” Brownback said.
Brownback’s chief of staff, Jon Hummell, described the governor’s leadership style in an interview this fall. He said Brownback often, but not always, takes a deferential approach when dealing with the Legislature.
The governor doesn’t like to say “this is how it’s going to be” unless he feels very strongly about a particular position, Hummell said. Legislative leadership will ask for his opinion, Hummell said, adding Brownback will sometimes say he doesn’t feel strongly about a particular issue.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said he had been concerned Brownback might advocate that lawmakers defy the court. But he said he was gratified Brownback is encouraging the Legislature to comply with the ruling.
“I will give the governor credit for having stepped up to the plate and explaining, indeed, we need to follow the law as determined by the Supreme Court and that we need to restore an equitably funding plan for public education,” Carmichael said.