Lawmakers Say Brownback's Budget Plan Doesn't Add Up

Jan 10, 2018

Fellow Republicans on Wednesday characterized Gov. Sam Brownback’s spending plan — more than $6.6 billion a year — as a beeline return to deficits and an abdication of responsibility in a budding crisis.

The governor, poised to leave for a spot in the Trump administration, unveiled a five-year, $600 million increase in school funding Tuesday evening. When lawmakers dug into that proposal Wednesday, they griped about key details.

For one, they found irony in Brownback relying on a two-year $1.2 billion tax hike passed last year. After all, the governor vetoed it and forced his own party’s leaders to muster an override.

For another, even that money isn’t enough. It will only edge up toward Brownback’s school funding goal in the first two years. By the summer of 2019, the state would stare down another deficit. The governor’s plan doesn’t explain where Kansas would find even more school dollars in years three, four and five.

“This is not balanced,” said Republican Rep. Troy Waymaster, head of the House budget committee. “We’re going to have to find a way to balance the budget.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat on the Senate budget committee who is running for governor, called it “mean-spirited” to make lawmakers clean up the mess.

“We’re going to have to be the bad guys,” she said.

Salina conservative J.R. Claeys, one of the Republican representatives who stood by Brownback’s 2012 signature tax cuts when others united to undo them last summer, tweeted that Brownback had “waved the white flag of surrender from the dome, and tossed every ally he had left under the bus.”

Brownback long touted the principles of small government and economic growth through tax cuts, but is now promising schools a growing piece of a pie made bigger through tax hikes.

The governor proposed to spend a combined $325 million more across the state budget between now and mid-2019.

His budget director, Shawn Sullivan, credited the “Trump economy” for the expectation of rising state revenues.

"That is in stark comparison to what we've had the last couple years,” he said. “So Hopefully that continues and picks up even more with [recently passed federal] tax cuts."

He also acknowledged that last year’s tax hike made a difference.

Brownback’s $600 million school funding proposal — meant to end a long-running school finance lawsuit — is closer to a $500 million increase, lawmakers learned, because it includes money they already promised to schools.

The money-for-schools problem dwarfs all other friction points politicians will debate in the months ahead, but the state budget has other far-reaching ramifications. Among the moves Brownback proposed for the two-year spending plan:

  • Increasing Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals and nursing homes by $40 million. That would broaden access to health care without expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income adults, an effort that Brownback vetoed last year.
  • Paying Kansas teachers, by 2023, better than what their counterparts earn in all four neighboring states. Average pay is $47,775, about $200 behind Missouri, and $3,500 behind Nebraska, Kansas is already well ahead of Colorado and Oklahoma.

Teacher pay in Kansas rose an estimated 4 percent this year because of court-ordered funds, but districts say the real key to hiking salaries beyond that would depend on the state sending them more money year after year.

  • Letting students take 15 college-level credits for free while still in high school, and offering them the ACT college entrance exam or a similar work-skills test for free. If 80 percent of students take the state up on its offer, it would cost a little more than $25 million.

The college credit idea is similar to a 2012 Brownback initiative that let high-schoolers into technical colleges for free. The program grew rapidly and is now underfunded, so the governor wants to fix that with an infusion of $15 million.

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Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ