Kansas Governor Proposes Major Changes to Education Funding, Elections and Supreme Court Selections
By Dion Lefler
Gov. Sam Brownback endorsed remaking how the state funds public schools and putting the state's creditors at the front of the line for payments from state coffers in an ambitious State of the State speech Thursday night.
He also embraced moving city elections to the fall and changing the way Kansas selects its Supreme Court justices.
The school, election and court policy shifts have long been part of the conservative wish list for reforming state government into a smaller and less costly package. The debt proposal is designed to calm jittery bond markets that have downgraded the state's credit rating after deep tax cuts that weren't matched by spending cuts.
Brownback was combative on school finance, in the wake of a special three-judge court's recent ruling that state funding for education is unconstitutionally low.
"For decades now, Kansas has struggled under a school finance formula which is designed not to be understood, to frustrate efforts at accountability and efficiency," he said. "A formula designed to lock in automatic, massive increases in spending unrelated to actual student populations or improved student achievement."
Quoting from the judges' ruling, Brownback said he agreed with the court panel that "one cannot classify the school financing structure as reliably constitutionally sound."
Instead, the governor said, "it is time for a new school finance formula."
"My suggestion to you is simple, and I believe necessary -- a timeout in the school finance wars." Brownback did not give details, but said it "should reflect real-world costs and put dollars in classrooms with real students, not in bureaucracy and buildings and gimmicks."
For the next two years, while lawmakers work on crafting a new formula, the Legislature should appropriate money directly to school districts, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said the idea would work like a block grant based on each district's current level of funding. "It's pretty simple as to how you allocate it," he said.
He acknowledged that some lawmakers may be uneasy about "going into the unknown." But he said he supported the idea and that school spending needs to become more efficient.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt called the governor's proposal to repeal the formula "a bold idea." He said he could not say with certainty how that would affect pending litigation.
"I'll defend it however they enact," he said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the state's budget issues are pushing lawmakers to make needed reforms.
"A crisis is an opportunity," she said. "We have three cost drivers that are really killing our budget. One is K-12 formula. One is the KPERS (state pension system) debt. And the other is increases in Medicaid. And I believe he wants to structurally address those issues in his second term."
During the speech, more than 100 teachers lined the entry hall to the House chamber, holding their hands up in a symbolic raising of hands for school children. They cheered Supreme Court justices and Democratic lawmakers as they exited the chamber and greeted conservative Republicans with silence.
Afterward, they gathered with Democratic legislators at the old Supreme Court Room in the Capitol.
Johnson County teacher Barbara Casey recounted a conversation she had with the mother of one of her fifth-grade students.
"I had to tell her that frequently, it is very difficult for me to address her son's needs with 25 other students in the classroom," she said. "It's not that I'm not prepared, it's not that I'm not a good teacher, it's not that I don't care, it's not that I don't work hard, it's that there is not enough support and there are too many children in the classroom."
She said she was disappointed by the speech.
"I did not hear anything from the governor that gives me any encouragement that the situation will improve soon," she said. "In fact ... I don't really understand how changing the school finance formula will help at all."
"Our students deserve better than what we're giving them right now."
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said it's time for Brownback to stop blaming other people and the system, and step up and fix the problems his tax and economic plans created.
"The school finance formula has become a scapegoat," Hensley said. "The school finance formula is fine as it is. It's just they've underfunded it historically for years."
State's credit rating
In a message aimed straight at Wall Street, Brownback proposed a constitutional amendment to put the state's creditors first in line for payment from the state's dwindling money supply.
Both of the major bond-rating firms, Moody's and Standard & Poor's, have downgraded Kansas' credit rating since the governor and Legislature made sweeping tax cuts over the past two years.
A constitutional amendment would ensure that bond payments would be made and the state would have to cut public services rather than default on its debts.
"Kansans know the importance of a promise, whether to friends, family or a business," Brownback said. "And recognizing that promise, they pay their debts on time and in full. The Kansas Constitution should reflect that as well."
The Brownback tax plan lowered income tax bracket rates and exempted the owners of about 190,000 businesses from having to pay income tax on their profits.
He would not say whether his budget, out Friday, would include any tax increases.
He said he is committed to keep the state on its "march to zero income taxes," a course that has substantially reduced state revenues and created projections for deep deficits this year and next.
"States with no income tax consistently grow faster than those with high income taxes," he said.
Wagle said she was pleased the governor was leaving the income tax cuts intact. She predicted he would include adjustments to the tax code when he unveils his budget on Friday.
Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, criticized Brownback for refusing to reverse course on the tax cuts, which she said failed to spur growth.
"Working families in Kansas who are trying to make ends meet continue to lose access to essential programs and tax credits," she said in an e-mail. "They shouldn't have to pay for our self-inflicted state budget crisis."
Supreme Court selection
Brownback promised to take another run at a constitutional amendment that would give him and future governors the authority to pick the justices on the state Supreme Court, with the consent of the Senate.
The state now picks justices using what is called the merit system, in which a commission of lawyers and lay people submits three names and the governor makes the final selection.
The Legislature already changed the selection process for the state Court of Appeals, but changing it for the Supreme Court would require a constitutional amendment.
Democrats and moderate Republicans who favor keeping the merit system say they should have enough votes to defeat the amendment in the House this year.
Two Supreme Court justices -- Lee Johnson and Marla Luckert -- did not attend the address.
Brownback actively supported efforts to oust Johnson and Justice Eric Rosen from office during the election.
He appeared to take a swipe at the Kansas judiciary and its role in the school finance litigation when he told the Legislature that it was the only branch of government that could appropriate money. "That's in the constitution," he said, prompting a standing ovation and cheers from conservatives.
Chief Justice Lawton Nuss would not comment on the governor's speech and his call to change the judicial selection process.
Brownback also embraced efforts to change when we vote in local elections.
He said turnout for municipal elections runs about 10 percent, a fraction of the turnout for state and national elections in the fall.
"That does not honor our values of wanting higher voter participation," he said.
Critics of the proposed change say it would bring high-power party politics to what are nonpartisan elections, and potentially bury the local candidates and issues under a long list of national, state, county and judicial offices.
In the Democratic response to the governor, Hensley offered what he called "the real -- and frankly somber -- state of our state."
"We've just heard the governor's take on the state of our state, but, unfortunately, how can Kansans believe it when he has deliberately and repeatedly misled us?" he said. "...While many regions of our nation are making steady progress, the state of our state is bad."
Hensley called Brownback's income tax cuts an "irresponsible and reckless economic experiment."
He said that has cost the state $700 million in lost revenue, more than the $600 million the state lost in the depth of the Great Recession.
A Topeka school teacher, Hensley also lashed out at the governor on school finance.
"In response to the (court) ruling, the governor said we need to restructure the current school-finance formula," he said. "To me, that's another way of saying 'Let's pass the buck to local school boards and taxpayers to pay more for their schools.'"
Reach Dion Lefler at email@example.com. Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.
(c)2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)