When Gov. Sam Brownback delivers his State of the State address Thursday night, it will be a chance for Kansans to see how he can instill optimism in the state’s future.
Brownback, who won re-election with slightly less than 50 percent of the vote, will seek to shore up support among Kansans as the state faces a budget shortfall and his campaign faces a federal grand jury investigation.
The governor’s staff has been tightlipped about the speech.
“Obviously, about the biggest mistake you can make as the governor’s staff is to give away the State of the State address,” Jon Hummel, the governor’s chief of staff, said last week with a laugh.
Hummel did give some hints. The governor will lay out his proposed solution to the budget hole and will preview some of his ambitions for next four years, which include tackling poverty in the Sunflower State.
The biggest question is how Brownback will handle the budget. He veered away from the topic in his inaugural address, instead focusing on what he called “the crisis of the family.” Some critics accused him of ducking the serious issues facing the state.
Brownback’s confidence has not wavered. “We’re in much better shape,” he said Monday when asked about the state’s finances compared to before he took office.
The speech starts at 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on KPTS, Channel 8.
Here are seven things to watch for:
1. Does Brownback take ownership of the budget solution?
Democrats have accused the governor of avoiding responsibility for the state’s current fiscal hole, which is projected at $648 million for 2016. And when he unveiled his initial proposal for budget fixes in December, one of his closest allies, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, complained that he had largely left the task up to the Legislature. More than $200 million of the budget moves Brownback proposed require legislative approval.
Brownback has repeatedly expressed a desire to defer to the Legislature on budgetary matters. “The budget I put forward I look at it as that’s the start of the discussion. Legislature that’s their primary purpose is the power of the purse,” Brownback said.
“I’m open to whatever you think needs to be done,” he said.
2. Does he play defense on tax cuts?
Brownback’s signature policy – income tax cuts and the elimination of income tax for the owners of 190,000 businesses – has been blamed for contributing to the state’s current fiscal crisis. Standard & Poor’s gave the state’s credit a negative outlook in an analysis earlier this month, citing the tax cuts as one of the reasons.
Brownback says the policy is spurring economic growth. He points to the state’s low unemployment rate as proof. But the Kansas economy has lagged surrounding states in job growth and is projected to grow at a slower rate than the nation this year.
3. What does he say about schools?
Brownback repeatedly touted his education record during the campaign and said the state was spending record levels on education. That statement is true if increased spending on teacher pensions is included and inflation is not taken into account. Both his budget director and chief of staff have said current spending on schools is unsustainable.
Hummel said school finance would be included in Brownback’s budget proposal Friday; he may preview that Thursday night. Many conservatives have said the current formula needs to be rewritten to direct more money to classrooms but lower the overall cost to the state. Few have been able to say how that would be possible. Thursday night could be Brownback’s chance.
4. What does he say about the judiciary?
Last year, Brownback included a not-so-subtle dig at the Kansas Supreme Court as part of his State of the State when he said too many decisions are made by “unaccountable, opaque institutions.” During the election, Brownback supported efforts to oust Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson. In the wake of a recent ruling by a three-judge panel that Kansas schools are unconstitutionally underfunded, Brownback may take another swipe at the Kansas judiciary.
5. Will he push social issues?
The governor’s inaugural address had a laser focus on social issues. He made frequent references to God and opposed abortion. He contended that a breakdown of the family structure was the source of poverty in the state. “Lack of healthy families is a big part of poverty in our state and nation. We must substantially reduce childhood poverty. A big piece of that will be to strengthen healthy marriage and family,” Brownback said.
Brownback said he wants to have a conversation about the role of family. The question is whether that translates into specific proposals in the coming year.
6. Does he offer any new policy ideas?
He said last week that early in the session he would lay out his idea to create urban opportunity zones, similar a program that already exists in rural areas, and initiatives to fight poverty. He also said he would have proposals related to water policy. “All those are things I campaigned on. …We’ll be laying out those initiatives,” Brownback said.
7. How do Democrats respond?
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, will deliver the Democrats’ prerecorded response, which will air immediately after Brownback’s address. Hensley has promised that his speech “will be unlike any State of the State response you’ve heard before.”
He has long been one of Brownback’s fiercest critics and has repeatedly accused the governor of deceiving Kansans about the state’s finances.
Thursday will offer him a chance to put Brownback on trial. The question is, how far does he go? Will he focus on the budget or will he delve into the grand jury as well?