TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback rejected the idea primary victories by moderate Republicans are a repudiation of his policies, instead faulting poor communication and negative media attention in his first public remarks since last week’s election.
The second-term governor, unchastened by the loss of loyal lawmakers in primary contests, didn’t back away from his signature tax policy. Nor did he give ground on education, though he acknowledged he doesn’t know how the state will pay for an upcoming court decision expected to require a half-billion dollars in new spending.
Boosting state education funding by the $500 million to $800 million some expect the Kansas Supreme Court to call for would require a tax increase, Brownback said. The governor made the comments in an interview on the Kansas City public television program “Ruckus” (www.kcpt.org/programs/local-programs/ruckustv/).
Show host Mike Shanin asked Brownback whether last week’s results amounted to a rejection of the governor’s policies.
“I don’t think it’s that, but I think it is a lack of us getting out there the information. If you analyze what really went on, the core issue was school funding, that most people would say this is about the issue of school funding,” Brownback said.
Most people believe K-12 school funding has gone down during his administration, Brownback said, adding it actually has increased. He critiqued media reporting of education spending.
“When you parse it and break it down, a lot of it’s media-driven and very negative from the media,” Brownback said, asked about the near-constant criticism he faces and his low approval numbers.
Tom Cox, who beat incumbent Shawnee Rep. Brett Hildabrand in the Republican primary, said voters raised concerns with tax policy more often than education — though education also generated significant interest. Cox argued the successes of moderate Republicans represent an explicit rejection of the governor.
That’s a view shared by Democrats. House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, has said “the public is more engaged and have more to say about where the state has gone.” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, has said the November general election holds the promise of defeating even more of the governor’s political allies.
“Having knocked over 5,000 doors, having talked to people in my district — the large amount of people who identified as very conservative or former Brownback supporters who said ‘I will not support him or his legislators anymore’ was astounding. It was 100 percent a repudiation of his policies and specifically, the No. 1 was actually tax, not education,” Cox said.
In one respect, Cox sees truth in Brownback’s lament over a lack of communication, however. Incumbent lawmakers most in line with the governor often failed to participate in public forums in the run-up to the election, he said. That often left forums with few vocal Brownback supporters.
The phenomenon was noted by the public radio station KCUR, which reported in late July that incumbent conservative lawmakers in suburban Kansas City often were skipping public appearances in favor of door-to-door campaigning. Several of those incumbents lost their seats.
New moderate Republican lawmakers — along with likely new Democrats — will be keen to adjust tax policy. In particular, candidates and some current lawmakers have targeted tax breaks for business owners for change.
More than 300,000 entities are exempt from paying income taxes under the 2012 tax law, which eliminated taxes on business income flowing to owners of limited liability companies. Beyond the lost revenue, critics contend it is unfair, allowing business owners to avoid taxes while their employees have to pay up.
“The governor sadly remains out of touch with reality. He does not realize what happened last Tuesday was a repudiation not only of his policies but also his Republican conservative friends in the Legislature who implemented those policies,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.
In the interview with KCPT, Brownback didn’t back away from the LLC tax break. He pointed to the number of small business formations and said Kansas had reversed the flow of revenue out of the state and into Missouri. The “battle” for Kansas City is critical, he said.
He acknowledged that last year, the state had a “terrible” and “awful” revenue year. Lawmakers passed, and Brownback approved, a package of tax increases in June 2015 in an effort to balance the budget. Since then, Brownback has led several rounds of budget cuts as revenue continues to underperform estimates.
Brownback suggested other states also are experiencing budgetary difficulties and spoke of trouble in the state’s oil and agricultural sectors. He didn’t say whether he would sign or veto legislation that changes tax policy.
“We’ll see what they put forward. We’ve already adjusted it twice,” Brownback said.
Looming over budget discussions is the prospect of a Kansas Supreme Court opinion calling for hundreds of millions in additional state aid to public schools. The court will hear arguments this fall about whether funding levels are adequate, and most expect the court will rule the current amount appropriated is not.
Asked how the state would pay for additional funding, he was at a loss.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Brownback said.
Soon after, he indicated a tax increase would be needed. The governor didn’t rule out defying the court, an approach some conservatives have clamored for.
“(With) the adequacy piece, there is a lot of concern about, ‘Is this the role of the courts to determine that piece of it — that that is inherently a legislative determination to be made.’ And $500 (million) to $800 million is a substantial property or tax increase somewhere to come up with those resources,” Brownback said.
Raising $500 million or more in new revenue in a single year would be a monumental task for lawmakers. By comparison, the Legislature’s 2015 effort to craft a package to raise approximately $400 million in new revenue led to weeks of gridlock and the longest legislative session in state history.
Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said Brownback is refusing to acknowledge the state’s tax policy has failed. On the other hand, moderate Republicans who just won are saying the state needs to restore a tax system that produces revenue and pays for high-quality services, he said.
“So when (Brownback) says, ‘I don’t know where we’ll get the money,’ what he’s really saying is, ‘I’m not changing my tax plan and we’re not going to produce any money, so I don’t know where it comes from,’ ” Desetti said.
Cox, who indicated he generally always supports increased investment in education, said he hopes the justices will be reasonable if they rule spending is inadequate.
He spoke of the difficulty of coming up with new funding quickly at a time of budgetary problems and expressed a desire that the court would allow the state to ratchet up spending during a period of years.
“I hope that the courts are going to recognize that the state has no money and that they need to make it — they can’t say, ‘Hey, you have to do it within the year.’ Because that would financially, I mean, what do we do?” Cox said.