In his State of the State address Wednesday night, Gov. Sam Brownback perhaps inadvertently reflected the bind in which Kansas finds itself. “Today we are growing and moving forward,” he said. The problem is that his tax reforms, coupled with the suspense over the school-finance decision, are blocking the view ahead.
Brownback could cite some real and impressive improvements in the state’s fiscal health during his term, including the turnaround from a $876 ending balance in fiscal 2010 and the decline in the unemployment rate from 6.9 to 5.1 percent.
Of course, he didn’t mention the severe spending cuts that enabled him to replenish the state’s reserves. Nor did he own up to the widespread budget problems he and his allies in the Legislature have helped create for prisons, K-12 schools, courts, state universities, social services and local governments across the state. Or note how his leadership has led to higher property taxes, larger class sizes, bigger tuition bills and a higher-than-planned sales tax (all of which his expected November challenger, House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, noted in the Democratic response).
And it’s premature at best to take credit for the state’s economic rebound, especially when Kansas compares unfavorably with many other states’ recoveries and the most drastic effects of the 2012-13 tax slashing are yet to come.
Brownback was right to state his pride in the steps he and the Legislature are taking to extend the life of the Ogalalla Aquifer and develop a comprehensive and durable water strategy. He and lawmakers deserve praise for their successful investment in technical education, which should have a positive impact on the workforce for years to come. He aptly highlighted his uncommon commitment to rural economic development, through the effective Rural Opportunity Zones program and otherwise.
Considering how much of a source of conflict public education is in the state, it was a refreshing change in tone to hear the governor speak glowingly about schools and even tout fourth-grade reading scores. “We Kansans love our schools, and they are great schools,” he said.
But the only new initiative Brownback announced wasn’t actually new – his welcome advocacy of overdue state funding for all-day kindergarten. Even then he had to encourage the members of the conservative Legislature to stand up and applaud for the idea.
It rang hollow to suggest the best school decisions are made closest to the students, given the meddling in education that he and the Legislature have sought to do in recent years.
“Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else,” he said, taking a shot at the Kansas Supreme Court. But he failed to acknowledge that the court has a responsibility to make sure Brownback and lawmakers fund schools at the “suitable” level spelled out in the state constitution.
His follow-up to the current two-year budget, to be released Thursday, will explain more about how the numbers will work from here, including for all-day kindergarten.
But the jury is still out, along with the court decision, on his claim of Kansas’ leadership of “an American Renaissance.”