Gov. Sam Brownback says many Kansas voters misunderstood his policies during the recent election, when victorious legislative candidates made opposition to those policies the key issue.
He enters the next year facing a budget hole and a Legislature where he has significantly less clout. But he pushed back on the notion that he stands in opposition to the ideals that many new lawmakers based their campaigns on.
He rattled off a list of common campaign promises: more money for schools, more money for the state’s pension system, a fairer tax system and an end to taking money from the highway fund.
I want a fairer tax system, but it’s like that was all counter to my policies.
Gov. Sam Brownback, on voters’ perceptions
“Well, I want to put more money into education, highways, KPERS (pension system). I want a fairer tax system, but it’s like that was all counter to my policies,” Brownback said Wednesday during a joint interview with The Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star.
Brownback blamed the media in large part for a perception that he is anti-education. He contended that in a poll, a majority of Kansans would say school funding has been cut during his tenure when in reality total education funding has increased.
“People are running against cuts to schools. I agree,” Brownback said. “But it’s not true, though.”
The increases in education funding during Brownback’s tenure stem partly from the Kansas Supreme Court ordering the state to spend more on education to ensure equity among districts. An upcoming ruling by the court will determine whether overall school spending is adequate.
Brownback said he thinks school funding will be the dominant issue of the next legislative session.
“The budget’s going to be important,” he said. “But long term, this is the big spend, is how we do the school funding.”
Focus on outcomes
Lawmakers moved in 2015 to throw out the state’s old school finance formula in favor of a block grant system. Those grants are set to expire in 2017.
“What I want to do is shift to a system where it’s about outcomes,” Brownback said. “It’s about student performance, and we pay for that.”
He compared his vision for education in Kansas to that of the medical system.
“The people want the system not to just pay for procedures. They want outcomes,” he said. “I don’t want to pay for 10 of this type of procedure and 20 of that. I want to see that this person is doing better. That’s what I want. Well, that’s what I want us to do in education. I want to see that this student is doing better. And I want to pay for outcomes.”
Monthly revenue estimates
Brownback also bemoaned the media’s focus on the state’s struggle to meet monthly revenue estimates, a phenomenon he blames on the struggling commodities market rather than his tax cuts.
“I guess Missouri doesn’t even do a monthly (estimate), because I never see their numbers coming out on a monthly basis … and every month it’s a huge headline in the Kansas City Star about it’s off this much. Well, that has impact on people,” Brownback said.
Missouri releases monthly revenue reports, but unlike Kansas, it does not compare its revenue against estimates.
Working with Legislature
Brownback’s relationship with legislative leaders has become increasingly strained.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, the top Republican in the Kansas Senate, told reporters Monday that lawmakers are worried the governor won’t offer a serious budget solution in January as he pursues a job with President-elect Trump’s administration.
“I think it would be more useful if she’d put forward proposals on how to deal with the budget instead of just calling names,” Brownback said. “We’ve got budget issues to wrestle with. Let’s start.”
We’ve got budget issues to wrestle with. Let’s start.
Gov. Sam Brownback, on working with lawmakers
Wagle chastised Brownback in a statement for his refusal to make cuts ahead of the session, something that is within his executive authority.
“The Governor’s lack of action only makes the necessary cuts deeper as we move further into the fiscal year,” Wagle said in the statement. “The legislature will reconvene on January 9, at which point we’ll get to work on picking up the pieces and govern.”
Brownback said his door is open to lawmakers on possible budget proposals.
“They just went through a campaign,” Brownback said. “People ran as they saw that they needed to do or desired to do. They did. We’ll put forward proposals. We’ll work with people as much as we can at the end of the day.”
Brownback said he has spent the past month building the state’s budget for the next two years. Kansas faces a projected budget gap of more than $900 million for the next 18 months. That gap will have to be closed through some combination of budget cuts and increased revenue.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, the newly appointed Senate budget committee chairwoman, said she hopes the governor is willing to work with the Legislature, “because eventually we’ve got to solve our problems in Kansas so we can move forward and improve our economy.”
Brownback said he is open to discussing changes to the tax system, but he is reluctant to eliminate an income tax exemption for business owners, part of his signature tax cuts. Many candidates in both parties ran successful campaigns calling for the exemption to be eliminated.
“I would hate to have us go back in a field that’s taking off nationally on small-business growth,” Brownback said, noting that congressional Republicans are now exploring the idea at a national level. “We pioneered this field.”
Brownback noted that many people in Kansas have said the exemption is unfair and called that a legitimate argument. “But I think it is less fair that we give these big subsidies to big companies,” he said.
The governor would not answer when asked whether he could promise to be in Topeka for the next two years.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, called on Brownback to end the speculation about Washington and commit to solving problems in Kansas.
If he’s thinking about Washington, he should stop. We’ve got a crisis in Kansas ... that needs attention.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita
“If he’s thinking about Washington, he should stop,” Ward said. “We’ve got a crisis in Kansas – more than one – that needs attention, and we should stop playing around with this concept that he’s going. … It’s time to focus on the problems of the people of Kansas, which is, by the way, the job he ran for.”
Asked whether he had any regrets about his tenure as governor, Brownback said the aspect of the job that is most important to him is building relationships.
“You want to be able to say hi, have a conversation and feel as if you were a positive contributor to their soul,” Brownback said. “I’m sure I’ve done things wrong in that regard, but at the end of the day, that’s what I hope to get the most right is to be a positive contributor to their soul. We’ll see.”