Speaking to Kansans Wednesday night from the House chamber, Gov. Sam Brownback could point to a landmark achievement of his first year in office – the end of the budget crisis – as he set some huge and worthy goals for his second.
If he failed to mention the severe budget cuts that helped turn a $500 million deficit into a projected surplus of at least $200 million, or to explain how it would be fair to cut income-tax rates while leaving the 2010 sales-tax increase in place and axing income-tax credits that help low-income Kansans, or to acknowledge that his preferred school-finance reform could force property-tax hikes on local districts – well, State of the State addresses are for broad, carefully shaded strokes, not hard truths.
The governor is right about Kansas needing to see its population and economy grow. And it was great to hear him aim for an ending balance even more generous than the statutory requirement of 7.5 percent, to resolve to “stop digging” the hole that is the state pension system’s unfunded liability, to take on Medicaid’s rising costs, to advocate the state pay down its debt, and to call for repeal of the state’s “use-it-or-lose-it” doctrine on water.
But as House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, argued in the Democratic response to Brownback’s speech, many Kansans would sooner see their property taxes cut than their state income taxes.
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And it continues to boggle the mind how conservatives such as Brownback, who so decried the 2010 sales-tax hike upon its passage, could now so blithely embrace its continuation, even as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce works to unseat lawmakers who voted for it.
The hard part for Brownback will be selling the details of all of the above, especially when the administration has been so insular and single-minded in crafting its reform plans. If the governor expects passage, he’ll have to explain a myriad of details and calm as many fears. Social services, which have taken a beating in recent budget cycles, especially deserve to have their priorities addressed as state revenues increase.
Brownback also may be misreading Kansans’ view of K-12 schools. Those parents who “know what’s best for their kids,” as he suggested, also know that their local schools have had to spend too much time cutting teachers and programs the past few years. Though his reform proposes not to reduce state aid further, there are reasons to wonder – about that as well as his claim that his new formula would end the cycle of lawsuits.
It will be up to the GOP-led Legislature, election year and all, to be sure that Brownback’s ideas align with the state’s needs. Kansans can help, by making sure their governor’s confident voice isn’t the only one heard under the Statehouse dome.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman