The specter of Sam Brownback haunted the Kansas statehouse last week in the form of a proposition that would place unchecked power for funding public schools in the Legislature’s hands.
Beginning with his election as governor in 2010, Brownback and his allies blamed the Kansas Supreme Court for the state’s financial distress. Remember that they tried to intimidate the Court into submission on school funding. That did not work. They next proposed to pack the Court with partisan judges. That went nowhere. Then they campaigned to oust judges standing for retention. Voters rejected that ploy.
Brownback acolytes are now back for a last hurrah — pushing forward on the former governor’s call to rewrite the Kansas Constitution and slam the door on the Court from ever again reviewing the adequacy of funding public schools. House Judiciary Chair Blaine Finch hosted the ghost by ramming an amendment out of his committee after a couple hours of hearings.
This move is powered by the same shadowy folks who gave Kansans the five-year nightmare of unbalanced budgets, unfair taxes, and record debt from 2011 through 2016. The Kansas State Chamber, in alliance with dark money operations such as American for Prosperity and Club for Growth, demanded elimination of the state income tax and elected radical Republicans to do their bidding. Names such as Koch, Murfin, Crossman, and Hill heavily bankrolled the debacle.
This right-wing coalition cares little about adequate funding of public schools. During their emasculation of state finance, base funding for schools was cut, block grants then capped funding levels, and taxpayer funds were diverted to private schools. Only the Kansas Supreme Court stood in their way.
As if to shout out their disdain for public schools, in the waning hours before first adjournment Senate President Susan Wagle and Majority Leader Jim Denning spooked the senate into emergency action to pass millions more in tax cuts instead of addressing the adequacy of school finance.
Imagine, if you will, the scary prospect of granting this coalition absolute power to fund public schools. Kansans would soon be looking to Oklahoma — with four-day school weeks and teachers’ salaries ranked at the bottom — as a model for school finance.
The coalition’s constitutional proposition has little chance of passing, but that is not their objective. They are seeking campaign fodder to be used in a blizzard of postcard smears to beguile and mislead Kansas voters. That might undo the will of Kansas voters who rebuked the Chamber and its allies in 2016.
Kansas voters should know by now the political tactics of this coalition. They have already set up the “Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding,” a pleasant sounding front to finance their crusade with dark money from deep pockets. They will use legislative votes on the constitutional amendment to target centrist lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, who undid the disastrous tax experiment last year and are currently moving the funding of public schools in the right direction.
Get ready for a postcard campaign of spooky ghost stories. Charges will be scurrilous. Graphics will be dark. Scaremongering will prevail.
So, Kansas voters, take a hint from the movie theme song: “Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” Call out for those voters of 2016 to return to the ballot box in 2018 and forever entomb the toxic ghost of Brownback past.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and formerly served with Kansas governors Robert Bennett and Mike Hayden.