Politics & Government

State of State address: Brownback focuses on schools, refugees, abortion (+video)

TOPEKA – Gov. Sam Brownback called school districts’ use of money “inefficient, if not immoral” and waded into national controversies over refugees and Planned Parenthood in his annual State of the State address Tuesday.

He did not mention the state’s budget deficit – an omission that even some members of his own party complained about after the speech.

Speaking shortly before President Obama was to deliver his final State of the Union message, Brownback, a former U.S. senator, assailed the president’s actions on Syrian refugees and the war on terror, saying the president put “his agenda and the feelings of radical Islamic terrorists over the safety of Americans.”

The governor had already directed state agencies to provide no help to the federal government in re-settling Syrian refugees fleeing the depredations of the Islamic State organization, which was behind the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. Last week, he expanded that to include all refugees.

On Tuesday, he questioned federal immigration authorities’ ability “to properly screen people claiming to be refugees.”

Brownback also criticized the president’s proposal to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba and transfer the terrorism suspects held there to mainland U.S. prisons.

He vowed not to let any of them come to the federal military prison at Leavenworth.

“Every member of the Kansas congressional delegation, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and I each stand at the ready to thwart every action the president takes to transfer terrorists to Kansas,” he said.

Brownback, a staunch opponent of abortion, noted that “every year since I became governor, we have enacted pro-life legislation.”

Saying “the time has come to finish the job,” he said he was directing Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Susan Mosier to “ensure that not a single dollar of taxpayer money goes to Planned Parenthood.”

The governor cited video images that anti-abortion activists say show Planned Parenthood executives arranging for the sale of fetal tissue and organs for medical research.

Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control, health services and abortions to women, has said the video shows not the sale of body parts, which is illegal, but arrangements for shipping fetal tissue that is donated by women who have abortions, which is legal.

Lobbyist Elise Higgins said the Medicaid funding Planned Parenthood receives in Kansas goes to “cover things like birth control, STD testing and treatment, cervical cancer screenings and breast exams.” She added that attempts to prevent the women’s health provider from receiving Medicaid funds in other states have been struck down in court.

No mention of budget

Democrats and some Republicans were puzzled by the governor’s choice to focus on these issues and not mention how he plans to close the $190 million budget shortfall the state is projected to face over the next 18 months.

“I would like to have seen him address some of the budget issues,” said Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita.

Rep. Don Hill, R-Emporia, agreed.

“There’s never been a session where the top issue’s been any more obvious, and there was no mention of that,” he said. “State of the State messages are never long on substance, but I’ve never heard a State of the State message that was as little in terms of aspiration. I mean, there was nothing aspirational.”

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said he didn’t “think it was that big a deal” that the governor did not focus on the budget in the speech. He said he had multiple meetings with Brownback on the budget and that “just because he didn’t talk about it” doesn’t mean the issue isn’t being addressed.

The governor will present his budget at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. “We’ll see what he comes up with,” Merrick said.

‘Defending ourselves’

Democrats criticized the national aspects of the speech.

“It’s a speech that I would have expected to hear from Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, because it had a lot to do with Muslim refugees and Islamic terrorists and issues that we don’t really have any control over in Kansas,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who was attending his 40th State of the State speech as a legislator.

“I would characterize it as a political speech, because he made all the right talking points to appeal to the right-wing base of the Republican Party.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said the governor’s speech lacked substance, pointing to his multiple references to the Kansas City Royals, the Sporting KC, NASCAR and college basketball. At one point, the governor touted the fact that the Wichita State Shockers have made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament every year since 2012 and called on lawmakers to applaud.

“He focused on national issues. He focused on Kansas sports. Neither of which he has any responsibility for. What he didn’t talk was about his job,” Kelly said. “He’s in a complete state of denial and unwilling to address the issues. ... It’s sort of appalling that the CEO of the company in his annual report doesn’t talk about the budget.”

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said the speech could have been titled “the State of President Obama” instead of the State of the State.

Some lawmakers appreciated the governor’s focus on national issues.

“There’s so many things to complain about regarding this president,” said Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita. “I mean, the governor could spend 20 hours detailing all the mistakes and blunders of this president.”

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said that “the president’s attacking us, and all we’re doing is defending ourselves.”

Health care

Brownback also took on the president over health care policy.

“KanCare is working. Obamacare is failing,” the governor said, touting changes to the state’s Medicaid system he enacted during his first term and emphatically voicing opposition to expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance to 150,000 uninsured Kansans.

The state’s decision not to expand Medicaid has been pointed to as helping force the closure of a hospital in Independence. Brownback contended that the Affordable Care Act created the problems facing rural hospitals and that “we should not expand Obamacare to solve the problem.”

He said Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer would assemble a working group to address the problems of health care delivery in rural Kansas and present a proposal by this time next year.

School finance formula

One major state issue that Brownback did address at length was the creation of a new school finance formula.

He called on the Legislature to increase the percentage of funding that goes directly to classroom instruction, to institute merit pay for teachers and to expand tax credits that partially fund private schools.

Brownback’s comments on schools parallel the plan of a now-defunct group called First Class Education that proposed the “65 percent solution” more than a decade ago as a way to improve public education.

The plan was to require districts to spend 65 percent of operational funding, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, directly on classroom instructional costs.

Kansas was one of a handful of states to adopt the proposal as a goal, but one few districts met.

Brownback is ready to double down.

“Today, of the more than $4 billion the state puts into education funding, not nearly enough goes toward instruction,” the governor said in the written text of his speech. “That’s highly inefficient, if not immoral, denying Kansans from putting their education dollars where they want it … behind a good teacher.”

He also said “parents and educators across our state have sought innovative options, from alternative teacher certification and merit pay to scholarships backed by tax credits” and called on lawmakers to remake the school finance system with a range of options.

Two years ago, legislators authorized up to $10 million in 70 percent-tax-credit-supported scholarships to pay for children to attend private schools. Last year, the Legislature revised the rules to make it easier for Catholic schools to claim the money to educate children of tithing church members.

Education funding and the courts are joined at the hip through Gannon v. Kansas.

The lawsuit by the Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City school districts alleges that the state is failing in its constitutional duty to provide suitable funding for public education.

The court case was complicated last year when the Legislature, at Brownback’s urging, repealed the state’s school finance formula and replaced it with block grants based on 2014 spending.

A three-judge school-finance court ruled the block grants to be unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable. The Supreme Court is reviewing the state’s appeal and is expected to rule sometime this session.

Takes on justices

Brownback also asked the Legislature to send voters a proposed state constitutional amendment to end the current system of selecting justices for the Kansas Supreme Court.

He did not specify a preferred way to select justices. However, he was instrumental in changing the selection of appeals court judges to a system in which he appoints judges and the Senate ratifies them.

At present, Kansas Supreme Court justices are chosen by a panel of five lawyers elected by the state’s licensed attorneys and four lay members selected by the governor.

Brownback criticized that system as undemocratic and said, “Kansas is the only state in the country where the selection of Supreme Court justices is controlled by a handful of lawyers.”

Members of the Supreme Court, who were seated a few yards away, did not want to comment on the governor’s remarks.

The governor’s speech was not televised for the first time during his administration. Wichita-based public television station KPTS has broadcast the State of the State for the past decade but said it was unable to raise the money to cover this year’s broadcast.

Highlights of Brownback’s speech

Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday called for:

▪ A new funding system for schools that will provide bonuses for exceptional teachers.

▪ Arming and training additional National Guard personnel.

▪ Working with the congressional delegation to thwart the transfer of detainees to Kansas from Guantanamo Bay.

▪ Changing, through a constitutional amendment, the way the Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected.

▪ Requiring local governments to get voter approval to increase property taxes in excess of inflation.

▪ Assembling a working group to address the problems of health care in rural Kansas.

▪ Ensuring that no taxpayer money goes to Planned Parenthood through Medicaid.

How to contact the governor

By mail: Office of the Governor, Capitol, 300 SW 10th Ave., Suite 241S, Topeka, KS 66612-1590

By phone: 877-579-6757 or 785-296-3232; for hearing impaired, 800-766-3777

By e-mail: To contact the governor’s office via e-mail, online Web forms are available at www.governor.ks.gov/contact-the-governor. There are forms for casework, proclamations, special occasion and recognition requests, and legislation and policy issues.

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/govsambrownback

On Twitter: @govsambrownback

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