In a recent gubernatorial debate, Gov. Sam Brownback affirmed once again he will protect the state's wealthiest citizens from paying more for public schools. The governor was speaking before an audience of business owners and professionals in the state's wealthiest county, Johnson County, in suburban Kansas City.
Democrat Paul Davis criticized the governor for cutting school funding, and Brownback shot back at his gubernatorial opponent: "He is talking about your money. The truth is he's going to come to Johnson County to pay for it." The "it" Brownback referred to was Davis' call for restoring cuts in classroom funding for Kansas schools.
For Kansans who follow state politics, the governor's comments will come as little surprise, as he has approved income tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthiest Kansans. The state income tax has been eliminated for 190,000 business owners. Brownback has also called for completely eliminating the state income tax which would leave school funding totally dependent on sales and property taxes.
Brownback wants to turn back 80 years of bipartisan tax policy initiated by Kansas Republican Gov. Alf Landon who advocated a graduated and progressive income tax with the understanding "the tax on property be proportionately reduced."
Brownback also wants to undo 50 years of bipartisan agreement among state lawmakers and state courts that property taxes levied by local school districts represent an inequitable funding source for educating children across the state.
Kansas courts have ruled property tax funding gives students attending school in wealthy districts like those in Johnson County educational opportunities that are inherently superior to students attending in poorer districts. Yet, last year, when a three-judge panel ordered state lawmakers to restore school funding, Brownback stated increased property taxes would be required.
The governor's actions speak even louder than his words. His income-tax cuts benefiting wealthy Kansans coupled with cuts in classroom spending have brought about property tax increases for schools across rural Kansas. According to the Kansas Department of Revenue, during Brownback's first three years in office:
* Taxpayers in 71 rural counties experienced property tax increases for schools of 10 percent or more.
* Taxpayers in 49 rural counties experienced property tax increases for schools of 15 percent or more.
* Taxpayers in 30 rural counties experienced property tax increases for schools of 20 percent or more.
Property taxes for schools in rural counties increased 15 times faster than in the wealthiest large urban counties (Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Douglas).
The Kansas Supreme Court ordered state lawmakers to rectify these inequities last March. Lawmakers largely complied, but the statewide impact of property taxes levied by local school officials in August has not yet been compiled.
Brownback's direction on school funding is unmistakable: Wealthy income taxpayers will be protected from increased school funding, and property taxpayers will carry a growing burden. As a consequence, rural taxpayers will be looking at higher property tax bills, and students in the state's poorer school districts will be denied access to equal educational opportunities.
Further, Brownback's legacy for Kansas -- an impending financial crisis -- will only make these matters worse.
Another court order might deter the governor from his preferred path on school funding. Or Kansas voters might change direction in the upcoming election in November.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.