TOPEKA— With the Nov. 6 election approaching, Kansas politicians are fighting over public school finance.
On the campaign trail, Democrats are pounding Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative Republican followers for making what the Democrats say are the largest cuts to public schools in Kansas history. And the Democrats are accusing Brownback of enacting those cuts in order to shore up revenue to pay for the massive tax cut that Brownback signed into law, which will eliminate state income taxes for the owners of 191,000 businesses.
“That is the largest (school) cut that has ever been put before the Legislature at any one time,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. “The people who voted for that budget clearly decided that putting money away for a big tax (cut) was more important than getting money into the classroom.”
But Republicans are crying foul, saying that there were larger school cuts during the administration of Brownback’s Democratic predecessor Mark Parkinson.
The clashing viewpoints are being hashed out in legislative candidate forums across the state.
House Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said Parkinson cut $388 from base state aid per pupil.
“These budget cuts were supported by the minority party and moderate Republicans,” Rhoades said.
Under Brownback’s tenure, base state aid per pupil was cut $232 per student, from $4,012 per student to $3,780 per student.
Democrats are quick to note the different circumstances facing Parkinson, who came to office in the middle of the worst budget crisis in Kansas history. The former lieutenant governor became governor in 2009 when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was picked by President Barack Obama to be head of the federal health and human services agency.
And Parkinson approved the school cuts himself, in a series of incremental allotments.
“There is a stark difference between having to make budget cuts out of necessity during a recession affecting the entire country and most of the world, and making cuts to education in order to stock money away for a massive tax cut,” Davis said.
But when Brownback came into office in January 2011, he was facing a projected $500 million revenue shortfall.
Revenues have since rebounded, and earlier this year, he signed an increase of base state aid of $58 per pupil, raising that to the current level of $3,838 per student.
Democrats says the increase was not nearly as much as it should have been given the magnitude of earlier cuts, and the state produced a $500 million ending-year balance.
And they say because of the tax cuts Brownback signed into law, school funding will suffer in the future.
In addition to the tax breaks for business owners, the new law will reduce the top individual state income tax rate from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent.
Legislative researchers say the cuts will produce revenue shortfalls approaching $2.5 billion. But Brownback says the cuts will grow the economy, which will produce more revenue.