Statehouse Live: Sam Brownback says he is focused on economic growth

Governor-elect Sam Brownback is interviewed in his transitional office at the Statehouse in Topeka. Brownback will take office as the new governor of Kansas Jan. 10, 2011.

? Gov.-elect Sam Brownback on Tuesday vowed to balance the state budget without a tax increase and try to improve the economy.

And despite a $500 million deficit, Brownback said there may be some room for targeted tax cuts aimed at developing rural areas.

“I’m focused on growth,” Brownback said in an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World. He promised to deliver an economic plan to the Legislature within 30 days after he takes office Jan. 10.

“We have got to get the growth agenda passed,” he said.

But his positions would likely result in funding cuts to public schools, and he said there are not enough funds available for a proposed higher education increase.

Public school issues

Brownback, a Republican, said he wants to provide the current level of state funding to public schools, but added the state doesn’t have the money necessary to replace expiring federal stimulus dollars.

“I don’t see how we, with the $500 million budget hole, can do a lot of augmentation really anywhere,” he said.

During the current fiscal year, Kansas schools are receiving approximately $200 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That enabled the state to back out $200 million in state tax revenues and use those dollars to patch other areas of the budget during the recent economic recession.

But for the fiscal year starting July 1, there will be no more federal stimulus funds, so schools will be short $200 million if the state doesn’t replace those monies. Plus, if the state doesn’t step up funding for certain areas of school finance, such as special education, then the state could face hefty federal penalties for failing to maintain school funding levels.

After several rounds of budget cuts, Mark Tallman, a spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said schools will have to make more cuts, use up cash reserves or raise local revenues through student fees and taxes.

Meanwhile, Tallman said, schools are facing increasing academic standards. “Meeting these challenges will be far more difficult if school budgets are further reduced,” he said.

In another school area, Brownback said during the gubernatorial campaign that he wanted to change the school finance formula.

But on Tuesday he said that will have to wait at least a year. A debate on how school funding is divided between districts statewide would “grab all the oxygen” and detract from working on economic growth and other key issues, he said.

Still, he said, there is room to work on other school proposals for the legislative session that starts next month.

Brownback said he wants to explore ways to get more existing resources into the classroom. One possibility, he said, would be to move funds currently dedicated to school construction to classroom instruction on a temporary basis.

He said he wants to change the public school teacher certification process to allow people with expertise in a particular subject to teach in schools even if they haven’t completed college training as an educator.

Brownback rejects ‘Commitment’

Concerning higher education, Brownback said the money is not there to support the Kansas Commitment plan, which was approved by the Kansas Board of Regents and would require $50 million in additional funding.

He said he would like to reallocate resources within higher education to increase funding for areas directly linked to the economy, such as the Kansas University Medical Center, KU School of Pharmacy, veterinary medicine at Kansas State and aviation at Wichita State. He mentioned that some states are discontinuing degree programs that are graduating small numbers of students and perhaps Kansas colleges should be doing that.

Of the funding increase under the proposed Kansas Commitment, about $20 million would cover inflation over the past several years. Another $15.75 million would be used to restore some of the deferred maintenance funding that legislators approved for schools but eliminated in the last two budgets. The plan would also seek $14 million in state funds for KU, KSU and WSU to address shortages in engineers and medical professionals. Last week, student leaders at the regents schools delivered to Brownback 3,000 postcards signed by students supporting the plan.

Regents Chairman Gary Sherrer said regents members will continue to push for the plan.

“The board’s position has not changed,” Sherrer said. “Through the Kansas Commitment, we’ve provided the governor-elect and the Legislature with targeted investment opportunities that all produce much-needed economic growth,” he said, adding, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Rural tax cut proposed

Brownback also promised to “meet our Medicaid needs.” He said, however, the Medicaid system must be overhauled to more efficiently deliver health care.

On the tax side, he said he will not accept any increases. In fact, he may seek cuts.

He said he will propose waiving personal state income taxes for a 10-year period for people who move to Kansas from out of state and live and work in rural areas. He said he also wants to work with rural counties to set up programs to buy down student loans if the student moves back to the area. He said the state wouldn’t mandate the programs but would partner with willing counties.

And Brownback, a U.S. senator, said he had no presidential ambitions. He ran in the last presidential cycle for the GOP nomination but dropped out early.

“I am not a candidate for president. I am ecstatic about being governor of Kansas,” he said.