Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau's political party. She is a Democrat.
In a wide-ranging State of the State speech, Gov. Sam Brownback called for legislative support for all-day kindergarten, apologized to Native Americans for their mistreatment by white settlers, and linked the abolitionist movement that founded the state to anti-abortion protests in the 1991 Summer of Mercy.
He also implied that Supreme Court justices, who were seated near the front in the audience, should back away from telling the Legislature what to do. The justices are expected to rule soon on a lawsuit seeking hundreds of millions more in additional state funding for schools.
“So let’s be clear,” Brownback said Wednesday. “On the number one item in the state budget – education – the Constitution empowers the Legislature – the people’s representatives – to fund our schools. Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Closing schools, though outlawed by the Legislature last year, is one of the few ways the court could enforce an order to increase funding.
Brownback’s remarks drew a standing ovation from Republicans. Democrats sat silently.
The governor predicted great things to come from cuts to income tax and spending that were passed during his first three years in office.
“Kansas is leading an American Renaissance,” Brownback said. “Our dependence is not on Big Government but on a big God that loves us and lives within us.”
Brownback launched two major policy proposals, both of which have been discussed in the lead-up to the legislative session.
The governor is proposing to expand kindergarten by phasing in new funding over five years. When he’s done, it will cost about $80 million a year to maintain it.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the decision hinges on whether the Supreme Court upholds a three-judge panel that ruled the state is underfunding schools by more than $400 million a year.
That decision is expected before the end of the current legislative session.
“If we do get a ruling from the court, we probably want to change the (state funding) formula and still find a way to provide for all-day kindergarten,” she said. “There’s a way we can make it all work. It’s just we need a decision from that court.”
Democrats, who have long advocated for all-day kindergarten, questioned Brownback’s plan to fund it from future income growth.
“I want to know where the money’s going to come from,” said Rep. Roderick Houston, D-Wichita. “Those are the answers that we didn’t get. You know when we start talking about funding those things the only place that we have to go is the retirement system for public employees.”
State Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan said the state will have money to do it without raiding pensions.
“We’ve been bringing a fiscal responsible government to Kansas, and then you add the tax cuts in and the fact that we’re hitting our projections and exceeding them, it allows for us the ability to do things like this,” he said.
The Kansas Legislative Research Department’s November consensus estimate – the latest available – found that the state would be $17.8 million short to keep base state aid at the $3,838 per pupil already allocated for the 2014 budget.
For 2015, the state was $20 million off pace to fund the allocated $3,852 allocated per pupil without all-day kindergarten. If kindergarten were added to the budget, the state would be $36.3 million short, said Sharon Wenger, a representative with the department.
Brownback acknowledged that one of the state’s biggest challenges is water sustainability. The population is expected to reach 3 million by the end of the decade.
He promised to create a comprehensive water strategy – “a strategy to secure our water future for the next 50 years,” as he put it – something that has been a priority in the city of Wichita’s legislative agenda.
“If the three-millionth Kansan is to stay and build a life here, then we must leave her a state with access to our lifeblood, water,” Brownback said.
The governor also proposed a $2 million fund to help solve what he called a housing crisis in some rural areas of Kansas and hailed wounded soldiers from Fort Riley.
Medicaid, voter ID law
Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty noted it’s an election year and said Brownback’s speech was as noteworthy for what wasn’t in it as for what was.
The speech didn’t touch two major issues in the state: whether to accept federal Medicaid money to extend insurance to 78,000 Kansans who are too poor to qualify for health exchanges, and what to do about the nearly 20,000 Kansans whose voting privileges have been suspended because they have not shown documents proving their citizenship.
“You’d say what are the current issues in Kansas, that’s probably what goes right to the top,” Beatty said. “And they’re not mentioned in the State of the State and it’s understandable. He wants to accentuate the positive and not, I guess you could say in pure political terms, get dragged down by a lot of controversies.”
But Brownback did brew some controversy when, in quick succession, he praised the abolitionists and anti-abortionists.
“Kansas marked the bloody trail out of slavery when the nation was divided and undecided on whether to do so,” Brownback said. “The chains of bondage of our brothers rubbed our skin and hearts raw until we could no more stand it and it erupted into ‘Bleeding Kansas.’
“The Summer of Mercy sprung forth in Kansas as we could no longer tolerate the death of innocent children.”
The comparison was lost on Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, a descendant of the family of slaves famously depicted in the television mini-series “Roots.”
“I don’t see the parallel personally,” Haley said. “He was looking at, I think, the broad constitutional guarantees that we all enjoy, but he decided to try and put them all together.”
“Those kinds of statements are offensive to me,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita and the state’s first elected black female senator.
“Why was this needed in the speech? That would be my question, where were we going with that? It doesn’t sit well with me when I hear those types of statements in a speech where we’re talking about what we can do for the future of the people of Kansas.”
Dipping into history again, Brownback apologized for the “Trail of Death” in 1838 when the Potawatomi tribe was force-marched to its reservation, and for the practice of taking children of Native families to be raised as whites.
He also apologized for the “separate but equal” segregated schools changed by the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that sprung from the Topeka school district.
“As governor, I acknowledge and accept responsibility on behalf of the people of Kansas, and I ask forgiveness for these wrongs we have done,” Brownback said.