TOPEKA — House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs responded Tuesday to the State of the State message by declaring the five-year leadership experiment with Gov. Sam Brownback a “failure” epitomized by misguided tax policy damaging to economic growth, education and transportation infrastructure.
“A majority of Kansans believe, not that the state of our state is bright, but that the state of our state is bleak. They don’t believe our state is on the right track,” Burroughs said in the taped rebuttal to Brownback’s speech to the 2016 Legislature.
He said Kansans from across the political spectrum viewed work of the second-term GOP governor as “one of failure.”
“From jobs, to schools, to roads, to public safety,” Burroughs said, “Kansans are not satisfied with the path the governor and the Republican majority in the Legislature has forced the state down. Whether you’re sitting at your kitchen table, learning in the classroom, heading to work or shopping at a grocery store, you feel the impact of the Brownback experiment.”
Other Democrats in the audience said they were surprised Brownback didn’t raise specific recommendations for dealing with a state budget deficit of at least $175 million and as much as $195 million over the next 18 months. The governor didn’t mention results of a government efficiency study presented by consultants Tuesday to the Legislature.
“It makes him look like he’s in a state of denial or he’s not steering the ship anymore,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said the governor’s decision to declare Kansas was in a “strong” position wasted a leadership opportunity to share with Kansans his vision for correcting the state’s structural deficit.
“We don’t have money to fund basic services and the state is still strong?” she said. “There is no business that would be allowed to fail in such a spectacular manner.”
Burroughs, a member of the House since 1997, said the Republican approach to economic development didn’t make sense. Kansas GOP lawmakers deleted renewable energy standards and diminished the funding to the Kansas Bioscience Authority.
“One proven way to attract jobs is by investing in research and innovation in areas like renewable energy and the biosciences,” he said. “We sure as hell want to make sure companies that have state contracts hire Kansas residents first before looking for workers outside the state.”
He said the governor was fond of touting the state’s 4 percent unemployment rate, lowest in more than a decade, but the state’s economy hadn’t produced the level of growth experienced in Nebraska, Missouri or Colorado. In 2015, according to federal labor reports, the private sector in Kansas created 10,000 jobs. That is below the 25,000 jobs Brownback promised would be generated during his successful re-election campaign in 2014.
Burroughs said the governor was proud of repealing the state’s school-finance formula and of efforts to overhaul K-12 public education, but that maneuvering didn’t result in sufficient investment in schoolchildren. A lawsuit pending before the Kansas Supreme Court argues the state’s financing of public education to be unconstitutional.
“Your children’s class sizes are getting larger. Student performance is eroding. Quality teachers are fleeing the state,” Burroughs said. “The Republican Legislature has been underfunding our schools for so long they have put a whole generation of students at risk.”
Burroughs said the decision by Brownback and the GOP majority in the House and Senate to plunder the Kansas Department of Transportation for more than $1 billion to shore up the state budget would result in erosion of the state’s road infrastructure.
The House Democratic leader said Brownback’s decision to sign into law during 2012 tax reforms that exempted 330,000 business owners from paying any state income tax and triggered deep reductions in individual income tax rates has nearly bankrupted the state. He said the package burned through the state’s budget surplus of about $500 million and triggered back-to-back annual deficits.
In 2015, lawmakers responded to revenue shortfalls by approving more than $400 million in tax increases, primarily by raising the statewide sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent. Democrats in Kansas are united in a quest to reduce or eliminate the sales tax on food purchases, Burroughs said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Brownback’s speech was laden with political spin that dodged the reality of “a never-ending economic crisis.”
“That’s what this speech was — throwing red meat to the Republican Party,” Hensley said. “The people of Kansas are no longer buying it. This is evident in a recent poll ranking Brownback the most unpopular governor in the country.”