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Kansas Governor Focuses on New Programs When Existing Ones Are in Danger

Even with financial shortfalls looming, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback tried to strike an optimistic tone during his State of the State speech Tuesday.

By Hunter Woodall

Even with financial shortfalls looming, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback tried to strike an optimistic tone during his State of the State speech Tuesday.

In the annual address to lawmakers, Brownback focused on new programs at a time when lawmakers are worrying about cuts to existing ones. He also challenged lawmakers to focus on education, and quickly fix the state's budget shortfall.

He didn't offer many specifics on his plan to solve the roughly $342 million gap, or the state's ongoing financial problems.

Brownback said "the budget is balanced" and that details of his plan would be made public Wednesday.

Kansas officials estimate the state could be short more than $1 billion through the end of fiscal year 2019.

"We will propose modest, targeted revenue measures to fund essential state services," Brownback told lawmakers.

Lawmakers will likely have to work quickly to fix the 2017 budget shortfall. Brownback challenged them to send him a bill mending this year's budget by the end of January.

As legislators prepare to debate rolling back a signature part of Brownback's tax cuts, the governor pointed out that President-elect Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan are looking at adopting similar tax cuts on a national level.

The House's tax committee signaled Monday that the LLC exemption, which took roughly 330,000 businesses off the state's tax rolls, could be repealed to help mend the state's budget woes.

"The purpose of our small business tax cut has been to increase the number of small businesses and increase private sector job growth," Brownback said Tuesday. "That policy has worked."

But according to the Kansas Department of Labor, private sector job growth has fallen in the last year. From November 2015 to November 2016, the state lost 4,500 private sector jobs.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said that Kansans have grown tired of Brownback's policies.

"This is not fiscal responsibility," Hensley said. "This is poor leadership."

But Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican who serves as majority leader, said based on Brownback's speech it looks like cuts will be made. That could help lead to a structurally balanced budget, he said.

"I think the governor did a really good job," Denning said. "He's optimistic, trying to give us a path out of here. But at the same time, letting us know it's going to be a hard lift."

The governor highlighted several proposals that are part of his budget plan. They included $5 million for starting new residency programs for doctors and a privately funded medical osteopathy school, both aimed at improving rural health care in the state.

Brownback said his budget also seeks to help ease dentistry shortages in the state by working to create a dental school at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The governor called building a new school finance formula the most significant task in front of lawmakers.

"Now is the time, this is the session, for us to craft a new school finance system that puts Kansas students first," Brownback said. "Let's get it done."

A new formula needs to be written because the block grants that essentially froze funding in 2015 expire this summer. Lawmakers threw out the old formula, with Brownback's encouragement, that same year.

Kansas children suffered for decades, Brownback said, under an overly complicated school finance formula. He said it lacked accountability and handcuffed school boards.

The governor said he wants to see a school finance system driven by student achievement.

"We need to measure success not by dollars spent, but by the achievements of our students," Brownback said.

Brownback also stressed that money should be used to give teachers merit-based pay increases.

He asked that a grading system be created for Kansas schools to help parents see how their child's school ranks.

"The zip code in which you are born should not determine the quality of the education you receive," Brownback said.

He also shared a vision for higher education, and challenged Kansas colleges and universities to help students graduate with a bachelor's degree for $15,000 or less.

The first Kansas college that meets that challenge for a less expensive degree will get 50 student scholarships fully funded by his new budget proposal.

The governor has cut millions from higher education funding in the last year to help ease the state's financial issues.

Brownback's speech came in front of a more moderate group of legislators, some of whom ran on repealing the governor's signature tax cuts.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, took issue with the governor's talk of merit pay and grading Kansas schools.

"It was education proposals that we have seen fail miserably in other states," Rooker said. "My word for tonight is extraordinary, in terms of the disconnect between reality on the ground (and) the kind of leadership called for in such times and the policies being proposed."

Bob Beatty, a political scientist from Washburn University, said the speech was not very warmly received by many lawmakers and attributed it to the ideological shift of the Legislature.

"Usually, there's several standing ovations. ... That's the fewest number I've seen in 11 years," Beatty said.

"There's a mismatch between the mood of the Legislature and the governor and that showed up in the speech, the reaction to the speech."

The Star's Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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