Gov. Sam Brownback has fostered a new spirit of bipartisanship in the Kansas Legislature with his last budget proposal and State of the State address.
Yes, most everyone on every side was that unimpressed – putting it mildly – with his speech and budget.
The bottom line of Brownback’s proposal – $600 million more to create a new school-funding formula that might finally pass Kansas Supreme Court muster, yet no details on paying for it except no tax increase – met with bewilderment from moderate and conservative Republicans.
Senate president Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, was exasperated, calling it “a feel-good budget that doesn’t balance.”
Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, said Brownback reminded him “of a student who only recently remembered his final project is due.” Other Democrats seemed mystified, in some ways agreeing that $600 million in new funding is needed for schools, yet wondering why Brownback didn’t identify the source of the money Tuesday during his State of the State speech.
The details of his budget proposal Wednesday didn’t help.
Brownback seeks to satisfy the Supreme Court with $600 million in new school spending over five years, though there’s no guarantee the Court will accept a phased-in plan. Just as problematic is how $100 million in years two through five of the plan can be paid for. The chairman of the House budget committee said Wednesday those budgets won’t balance.
Some of Brownback’s goals are worthy. He wants Kansas high schools to have a 95-percent graduation rate by 2023, 13 percentage points higher than most recent statistics. He is also an advocate for the Kansans Can program, which reinvents high schools by focusing on a student’s career path instead of automatically molding them into a college-ready environment. More counselors are proposed to help direct students.
But this isn’t leadership. It’s throwing Monopoly money at problems and leaving the details to the Legislature while Brownback works on questions that will come up at a second confirmation hearing for his nomination as U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.
Brownback’s performance at the microphone Tuesday and on paper Wednesday reinforce that he should have left leadership of the legislative session to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, for the good of Colyer (wanting some time in the governor’s office before the August GOP primary) and for Kansas, which had tired of its governor’s failed experiment and looking toward an ambassadorship.
But Brownback couldn’t let go, so his speech and budget proposal become a prime example for his years as governor. He tried to lead but failed. He offered fixes mired in fantasy. And his legacy becomes galvanizing Kansans – including so many who voted twice for him – into knowing they can do better.