Gov. Sam Brownback wants to expand beyond tax and budget issues and battle obesity and illiteracy during the upcoming legislative session, he told a Wichita business audience Wednesday.
At a Wichita Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Brownback showed slides saying that 3 out of 10 Kansans are obese, and a like number of the state’s fourth-graders, at a pivotal point in their education, can’t read at a basic level.
Brownback said his first two years in office were focused almost entirely on taxes and the economy, which he said are now “moving in the right direction.”
As for obesity and illiteracy, “They’re not so much in the budget and growth area, but they’re items that I ran on and items that I think are critically important for us moving forward as a state, so I want to start laying them out for people,” Brownback said.
One of Brownback’s slides showed an alarmingly rising curve from 13 percent obesity in 1992 to 30 percent today.
“This is a big deal,” Brownback said. “This is really going bad, and that impacts your health care numbers, it impacts diabetes, that impacts just a whole bunch of different things.”
Brownback said he plans to kick off his anti-obesity campaign on Friday by issuing a challenge to state employees to lose weight, with cash prizes for the biggest losers.
The governor said he has formed a five-person weight-loss team with members of his staff and will challenge state employees to form their own teams and compete for the highest percentage of weight loss over a six-month period.
“Any state team that beats us, the top two, we’ve got cash prizes we’re going to give – hope to give some pretty substantial ones – and the rest of them are going to be qualified for a set of prize drawings,” Brownback said.
He said the administration also is setting up a public website and hopes to draw local government and private-business teams into the competition to “see if you can beat the governor’s team or not.”
Brownback is himself a fairly trim individual, but he said, “I’ve got some room here and then I’ve recruited some beefeaters.”
But while the governor wants to lighten the population, he said he doesn’t support the recent initiative by first lady Michelle Obama and her husband’s administration to cut the calorie content and replace junk food with healthier fare in school lunches.
In Congress, Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Tim Huelskamp have led the fight against the lunch rules, saying the trimmed-down meals aren’t meeting the needs of active students. This week, they were celebrating a Department of Agriculture decision to give schools more leeway in the lunchroom.
“I am elated that Kansas students as well as our legislative efforts played a tremendous role in scaling back the USDA’s attempt at expanding influence in our school cafeterias,” Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said in a statement Monday. “The decisions about what kids eat should be left to their parents and local school officials – not bureaucrats in Washington.”
Brownback, a former U.S. senator, said he appreciates the federal government trying to reduce obesity, but that a national plan can’t be flexible enough to meet different needs across the country.
“What we’re doing is trying to attack it at the state level,” Brownback said. “When you do it as a nation, one-size-fits-all just doesn’t work.”
On reading, he said he’s deeply troubled that 29 percent of the fourth-graders can’t show basic proficiency in reading tests by the National Assessment for Educational progress.
“We’ve got to do better than that,” he said.
“I look at it and I go 29 percent of our kids can’t read at basic reading level in fourth grade? Really?” he said. “You can’t read, your world just starts closing in on you. ... I’m going to be making some proposals to the Legislature on how we can deal with that.”
He said he’ll also be recommending changes aimed at increasing the number of students prepared for college, similar to efforts that have been made in the vocational-training sector.
“Career-ready, I think we’re doing a nice job, we had an expansion on technical education this year,” he said. “I think we’ve done a nice job on career (preparation). I think we need to work on that college piece.”
Brownback said while he does plan to expand the scope of his advocacy for changes in government, he won’t be taking his eye off the ball on reducing and eventually eliminating income taxes, which he believes will spur growth.
He acknowledged that as a result of tax cuts that he supported and the Legislature passed this year, government income will very likely drop substantially through 2014-15.
He showed a projection that income tax receipts, which peaked at $2.95 billion in 2010, will bottom out at $2.5 billion.
But he projected that increasing commerce will lift state receipts after that, rising to $2.8 billion – slightly less than the current level – in 2016.
“Growth is the huge deal,” Brownback said. “We need to grow. We need to grow receipts, we need to grow the economy, we need to grow (the number of) people in this state.”
With declining or even slow population growth, he said, “you’re going the wrong way on your per capita spending, which we really need to work at holding down.”