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Archive for Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Analysis: Sebelius talking conservative but proposing tax-and-spend plan

January 14, 2004

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— If Gov. Kathleen Sebelius seeks a second term in 2006, TV viewers won't see any negative Republican ads that show her calling for a tax increase -- at least not from her 2004 State of the State speech.

That's because the Democratic governor didn't mention higher taxes Monday night when she told legislators -- and those who tuned in on radio or television -- that school districts deserve an additional $300 million in state aid over the next three years.

Only in a written summary that was distributed at the Statehouse, while the speech was in progress, did Sebelius disclose her plan to finance the extra school aid through $304 million worth of tax increases. That was several hours after House Speaker Doug Mays already had taped the formal GOP response to her address.

The governor's aides said beforehand that Sebelius did not want the details of her biggest legislative initiative to leak out before she spoke.

But by putting her tax plan only on paper, Sebelius was able to deliver a speech that emphasized fiscally conservative themes, even as she dropped a tax-and-spend proposal on legislators outside the hearing of her broadcast audience.

"My husband said she sounded really conservative until she got to the part about schools," said Rep. Judy Morrison, R-Shawnee.

Under Sebelius' proposal, the state sales tax would increase from 5.3 percent to 5.7 percent by July 1, 2006; Kansans would pay a 5 percent surcharge on their personal income taxes; and the statewide property tax imposed for schools would rise from the current $184 to $202 for a $100,000 home by 2007.

State aid to schools, now $2.6 billion, would rise to $2.9 billion after three years.

Sebelius argued extra money is necessary to raise salaries so that teachers do not leave the profession, to provide more all-day kindergarten classes and to expand programs designed to help poor and minority students.

However, before Sebelius touched on schools' needs in her speech, she bragged about how she had kept a promise to give Kansas a leaner state government.

Sebelius has sought to portray herself as a tightfisted manager rooting out inefficiencies -- while still appealing to education and social service advocates -- since her 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

Running against conservative Republican nominee Tim Shallenburger, Sebelius made much of offhand comments by Shallenburger that public schools could withstand a cut in state aid of perhaps 3 percent.

But the GOP primary had suggested that even in a fiscal crisis, many voters weren't too keen on raising taxes. Senate President Dave Kerr defended the $253 million tax increase approved in 2002 and suffered for it, losing to the Republican nomination to Shallenburger.

"I think people heard her say that she was not for raising taxes, and this is a mammoth tax increase," Kerr, R-Hutchinson, said after Monday night's speech. "This money, here, has nothing to do with savings. This is a straight-out tax increase."

Democrats, of course, do not think Sebelius is being inconsistent.

They contend that her previous statements on taxes did not amount to ironclad promises against raising them, even her October 2002 declaration, "No one is talking about a tax increase. We need to do more with less."

Also, Sebelius isn't spinning when she claims to have found efficiencies in government. For example, in her budget blueprint for the fiscal year that starts July 1, she proposed to finance $24.7 million in pay raises for government workers by reducing computer and purchasing costs.

Finally, Democrats think Sebelius' commitment to protect education carried her to victory over Shallenburger. That's plausible, because Sebelius attracted votes from moderate and liberal Republicans concerned about schools.

"The critical piece during the campaign was education," said House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg. "That was the critical, most defining issue in the campaign, and now she's stepping out, doing exactly what she said she would do."

Yet Sebelius kept her education plan separate from her proposed $10.2 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Her budget would continue fiscal policies embodied in the current budget, diverting money from highway projects and cities and counties and spending cash reserves to support current programs and a few extras.

Sebelius said her budget demonstrated how "we can continue to keep government functioning without a tax increase."

Then, her staff handed out the statement outlining a series of tax increases.

By skipping the details in the State of the State address, Sebelius may have made the inconsistency less jarring -- or not jarring at all -- for her television and radio audience.

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