Mixed signals: What would Brownback do?

Kansans still don’t know much about why retiring Sen. Sam Brownback wants to be their next governor — a valid question, given that just 2½ years ago, what he really wanted to be was president.

They are getting some signals about what kind of governor Brownback wants to be, should he surprise no one by sailing past Democratic challenger Tom Holland in November and into the job next January.

But those signals are mixed, and somewhat disconnected from the state’s difficult fiscal reality — which, it should be said, would be far worse if not for the federal stimulus bill that Brownback so proudly voted against last year.

In his appearances around the state, Brownback says he opposes raising taxes or cutting programs.

“You can’t cut or tax your way out of this problem,” he said in Salina. “You’ve got to grow your way out.”

He expanded on that talking point at an economic development event in Lawrence, saying, “That means you’ve got to be prudent at the moment but then you also have to strategically invest.”

Who doesn’t oppose higher taxes and program cuts? Growth — Brownback’s favorite word so far as a gubernatorial candidate — sounds great as a long-term goal.

But indications are that the state’s fiscal emergency will continue into 2011 and perhaps beyond. If Brownback doesn’t want to increase taxes or slash programs, how would he cover the state’s budget shortfalls? He’s going to have to pick one; Kansans deserve to know which one.

More mystery surrounds Brownback’s stated support for education, which he has described as the state’s “primary function.”

“Education at the state level is like the defense at the national level,” Brownback said in Garden City.

Given that Brownback’s Senate voting record has earned him 100æpercent ratings from groups promoting national security issues, that analogy would seem to bode well for Kansas schools.

But his Senate record on education has earned him a slew of zeros from education groups. And with K-12 education making up 52æpercent of the state general fund budget, school districts preparing to file another lawsuit challenging state cuts and some GOP legislators almost eager to cut K-12 funding, the depth of Brownback’s commitment to education becomes a pressing question.

Some business interests also are questioning how Brownback would reconcile his opposition to new taxes with the need for a new highway program. In appearances and on his Web site, Brownback talks up energy, infrastructure, “market-based” health care solutions, and predictable regulatory and litigation structures, with few specifics.

Brownback has said his economic renewal plan won’t come until after the 2010 legislative session ends. As Gov. Mark Parkinson and the state Legislature do the heavy lifting on balancing the budget for fiscal 2011, though, Kansans shouldn’t have to guess what Brownback would do.