Kansas school funding, water plans on Brownback’s agenda for 2015

? If anyone thought last fall’s bruising re-election campaign might have humbled Gov. Sam Brownback and pulled him back toward the center, they were wrong.

Fresh off of his come-from-behind re-election victory against Democratic challenger Paul Davis of Lawrence, the conservative Republican governor said he still has bold plans for his second term, from overhauling the school finance formula to launching an ambitious 50-year plan to stretch out the life of the state’s water resources.

And he doesn’t feel chastened at all by the closeness of the 2014 race.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback responds to a reporter's question during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014.

“It’s tough to get re-elected governor,” Brownback said during a year-end interview with the Journal-World. “For Republican governors, I’m only the second in 50 years re-elected. Bill Graves was the first.”

“Particularly when you do a lot of things,” he continued. “We had a lot of policy issues that moved the first term. So that makes it difficult. But we came through it, won by four points, and we’re going to continue to do and push the things that we did.”

Brownback’s first term was marked by passage of sweeping tax cuts that he said would stimulate the Kansas economy, although critics say the cuts have done little except put the state in a dangerous financial position.

He also enacted a major overhaul of the state’s $3-billion-per-year Medicaid system by putting the two most expensive groups of Medicaid recipients, the elderly and disabled, under a new managed care system known as KanCare, which is now managed by private insurance companies.

School finance

But Brownback said the issue that resonated most during the campaign was education funding, and that’s an area he hopes to focus on again in his second term.

“The big piece that I thought really hurt during the election cycle that wasn’t true was about education funding,” Brownback said. “That’s the piece that just was … that’s what Paul Davis ran on, was education funding. And we’d increased it.”

That claim has been the source of considerable dispute, both in the Statehouse and among the general public. Overall, total state funding for K-12 education did increase during his first term, from $2.97 billion when he came into office in 2011 to $3.18 billion this year.

But that was largely the result of increased state funding for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, which includes school employee pensions, and the Kansas Supreme Court ruling in March ordering the state to increase particular kinds of funding that targets lower-wealth districts.

On the other hand, “base” funding for schools — the money distributed on a per-pupil basis that pays for general, day-to-day operating expenses for schools — has gone down by about $21 million over that same period, due mainly to a cut in the base-aid formula that resulted when Congress phased out federal stimulus money it had been sending to states during the Great Recession.

Early in his first term, Brownback proposed a sweeping overhaul of the formula used to calculate base state aid. And while that plan never got out of a legislative committee, Brownback says he wants to take another swing at it in the coming session.

“My opinion of it hasn’t changed,” he said. “It’s broken. It reminds me of a policy bill that you don’t fundamentally deal with, and you just keep adding things onto over the years. The Farm Bill gets that way over time, where you just keep adding and adding. After a number of years, people don’t understand, why do you do it this way?”

But the governor offered few details about what kinds of changes he thinks should be made.

“To me, we ought to just open the whole thing up,” he said. “It’s just that the formula has grown very complex, convoluted (and) questionable. … As I said a couple of years ago, I think you ought to open it up, redo it and sunset it in four years so you’re having a regular discussion about where half of your state general fund goes.”

Republican legislative leaders have also called for rewriting the formula.

Water vision

Brownback also spent considerable energy during his first term on an issue that received much less public attention: developing a long-term “vision for the future of water supply in Kansas.”

That plan addresses a wide range of needs in the state, from the dwindling groundwater resources in the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas to the large reservoirs in eastern Kansas that are filling with sediment due to soil erosion.

It also suggests several strategies for extending the life of the state’s water resources, ranging from encouraging voluntary reductions in irrigation farming in western Kansas and developing hybrid crops that demand less water, to stabilizing stream banks to prevent lakes from silting up, and even dredging out some reservoirs.

But the question of how those projects should be funded remains open, and Brownback said local communities may need to bear a significant portion of the cost, especially when it comes to dredging out lakes.

“The vision I have for it is, you’ve got several reservoirs that have some needs, and you put out requests for proposals in the area saying, who can step up with some funds to help us do this,” Brownback said. “It’s not unlike what we’ve done on the NBAF facility (National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility) federally, where we had to put up more funds because we really thought this was an important thing for the state of Kansas for our future.”

Brownback said he hopes to start tackling school finance and the water plan in the 2015 session, which begins Jan. 12. More details of his plans are expected to be unveiled in his State of the State address, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15.