TOPEKA — During his election campaign, Gov.-elect Sam Brownback promised to freeze state spending when he took office.
As the Republican U.S. senator prepares to move from Washington, D.C., to become Kansas' top executive officer, he's facing a budget hole of up to $500 million. This after his predecessor, Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, cut more than $1 billion from state spending over the past two years.
With the state operating an already lean budget, even programs that help bring money into the state might not be safe from cuts.
"There are a number of good functions of government that are not within the core function of government," Brownback said this week during a one-on-one interview with The Eagle.
Supporters of south-central Kansas projects often point to the return on investment when pushing for state money for programs such as aviation training and research, or affordable airfares.
They point to studies showing that the annual $5 million the state has contributed to Fair Fares over the past five years brings $5.25 to the state for every $1 spent. For every dollar contributed to the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, supporters say, the return is $9.
Those returns might not be enough to save the projects from cuts this year.
"... That would be a big number to hit in this budget," he said of the millions in funding sought by NIAR supporters.
He had a similar view of the affordable airfares program, which helped attract AirTran to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport and has subsidized ticket prices for the past five years.
Affordable airfares are an important component to the region remaining globally competitive, Brownback said.
"While I look favorably on it, it is a tight budget atmosphere this year..." he said.
During the pre-session interview, Brownback discussed his hopes and priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Last year Gov. Parkinson identified the statewide smoking ban as a signature piece of legislation. Do you have any issues like that you are hoping to accomplish in the next session?
"The growth agenda — that is going to be our primary focus. What do we need to do, what can we do to grow this economy at the state level? We are going to look at it in all sectors... we are going to go tactically in each sector.
"What I have been pushing and what we are going to push is the military-intellectual complex around Fort Leavenworth. That is one we have not mined to the degree that I believe we can....
"I would also like to get some of the new-wave stuff in the aviation sector, ... (and private space travel). That is how we are going to go to space in the future, at least in the lower orbit, is the private sector. We've already seen the first ones go up, and I want us building these ships because they are going to be out of composites materials because it is one of the next phases."
Do you have plans to eliminate taxes, such as the income tax or corporate income tax?
"What I want to do over time, and this is a year to two proposal, is look at the tax mix in Kansas and see if we are as growth oriented as we should be because I don't think we are. But that is going to take us pulling together the stakeholders in the state and saying, 'What do we need to do to get in a more affirmative situation to grow the economy tax-wise?'"
Aviation this year is pushing for $10 million apiece from the state for the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University and the National Center for Aviation Training. The request is double from previous years. Is that something the budget can handle at this time?
"That would be difficult; I'm looking at a nearly $500 million hole in the budget. Both of those entities are doing a very nice job... I helped get a number of federal funds to NIAR. It is a globally high-quality group. They are getting a number of big contracts now; I'm really proud of them. But that would be a big number to hit in this budget."
South-central Kansas plans to push again this year for the state to contribute $5 million to the Fair Fares program. Do you think that is a good idea?
"We are in a really tight budget atmosphere, but that is one of the things we have to have to be a globally competitive area. You need to have accessible air transportation at reasonable prices. I've been really happy to see the Manhattan regional airport grow in its offerings, and I've been pleased to see what Mid-Continent can do.
"While I look favorably on it, it is a tight budget atmosphere this year..."
How do you see Kansas growing its wind power?
"Getting Siemens here (in Hutchinson) is like getting Boeing. We need to get General Electric here making the big turbines. One of the Siemens guys told me that 15 percent of their costs is transportation. I just saw two big wind blades coming here today; they are enormous and costly to move.
"The Parkinson administration has done an excellent job on wind, and we are going to follow along with it. Our big needs are going to be two: We are going to need to build the transmission lines, and we are going to have to attract the manufacturers. If 15 percent of the cost is transportation then they ought to be located here."
How much support should the state give higher education, or should students bear more of the cost of paying for their education at public universities?
"I had the presidents of all the regent universities in last week. I met with the chairman of the Board of Regents and the executive director now twice about this. I want to see higher education grow, I want to see it grow in selected areas where we are globally competitive like aviation in Wichita, veterinary medicine at K-State with the NBAF (National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility), the medical center at KU. But I think, as I mentioned to them, that it is going to require them to look and consolidate in certain areas that we don't have a large number of graduates in or things where we are not globally competitive.
"One thing I also intend to do is to incent the universities to focus more in these critical areas that are critical to our economy that we are globally competitive at."
You've said that you want to see more money going into K-12 classrooms. Are there districts that seem to spend a disproportionate amount of money on administration or non-classroom functions?
"I don't want to cite any. The overarching number has been somewhere between 60 to 62 percent of the education dollars get to the classroom. One group says 60; the state board of education says 62. I think the minimum has to be 65 percent and 65 for everybody.... What I would like to see us do is to provide the options for the districts to move money from various silos to get it into the classrooms."
Are there plans to consolidate the state Department of Labor and the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp. into the state Department of Commerce?
"When we put our budget proposal out you will see that we have tried to do what we said during the campaign. We will try to do our core function well, then if it is not within the core function of government we will look at moving that out somewhere else or not doing it. We will put forward a series of proposals in this budget. If you are going to hit that $500 million hole that we have you are going to have to rearrange where the budget is and where it goes... there are a number of good functions of government that are not within the core function of government."
Do you plan any changes or additional oversight for the minority affairs commissions?
"We'll put that forward in our budget; I don't want to announce that at this time. I was very disappointed in the funds and what happened. I read through that story but we will be putting forward proposals in that area.
"I would also like to bring in Native Americans into that mix; I think we have four tribes with reservations in the state. I've worked with the Native American community a lot, we have a number of people with Native American heritage in this state... and I would like to see that group brought in as well."
What do you think your administration can do to help ensure that kind of misuse of money doesn't happen again?
"I think you have got to have systems of oversight. I don't know that was a systems failure but what we will try to do every chance we get is to put systems of oversight into place to catch things like that before they happen or to not allow them to happen."
The last 16 years you have shuttled between here and Washington D.C. How does it feel to not be making that commute anymore?
"Ecstatic. It just feels fabulous. I drove from the Capitol last week, I put my kids to bed at night, my son and I are reading a set of books together. I got out after driving 20 minutes instead of traveling 5 1/2 hours. I thought, 'This is fabulous.'
"I love serving in the Senate, I love this country, but I'm a big believer in term limits. I really believe that the best way to do these jobs is to hit them, hit them hard and know that there is a time frame, that it ends. Just go for it, then when it is over you salute, sign your name in pencil and move on."