As conservatives criticize state tax increase, school board group ramps up its defense

Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, addresses the Kansas State Board of Education, arguing that state investment in public education leads to higher wages and reduced poverty.

? As Kansas politicians and taxpayers continue to debate the relative wisdom of the tax increase state lawmakers passed this year, one advocacy group issued a report Tuesday arguing that the tax hike should eventually lead to higher wages and less poverty in the state.

The Kansas Association of School Boards released a four-page report Tuesday citing data from all 50 states that the association says shows a direct link between state spending on public education and the economic well-being of that state and its residents.

“It’s really something that was prompted because of the ongoing concern and interest over the tax increase to fund state government, and in particular education,” KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman told the Kansas State Board of Education Tuesday announcing the report. “And our findings in here are to try to look at the impact of school funding on a state’s economic development, as well as individuals.”

The report argues that investing in K-12 education leads to higher college attainment rates overall, and the states that invest the most in K-12 education tend to have both the highest levels of college attainment and the lowest poverty rates.

During an interview after the meeting, Tallman said that as the impact of the tax increase starts to be felt across the state, there has been concern that public support for it may begin to wane.

“We’ve had back-and-forth letters to the editor and columns talking about ‘we’re raising taxes too much,’ or ‘no, this is why we had to do it,’ and a lot of that is really around tax policy or the budget side,” Tallman said. “And our point was to say we don’t think there’s been a lot of discussion about how what we spend on education is also a long-term economic development strategy as well.”

Indeed, conservatives who supported the tax policies that Gov. Sam Brownback championed in 2012, and which the Legislature repealed this year, over his veto, have been active in both traditional and social media condemning the Legislature’s action.

“There are many who would like to convince you that this tax increase was ‘needed’ and required to ‘structurally fix the budget,'” Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, wrote in an op-ed column published by the Topeka Capital-Journal.

“Quite the contrary, the largest tax increase in history was only ‘needed’ because the Legislature also passed the largest budget in state history, which included hundreds of millions of dollars in new and altogether unnecessary spending,” Masterson continued. “This new government spending pushes the budget back in the red in just 24 months, which, without real budgetary reform, will force yet another tax increase on hard-working Kansas families.”

Brownback’s own communications team has also been active in its criticisms of the tax increase, posting multiple comments a day on Twitter and sending out emails to the governor’s grassroots network of supporters.

“Let me be exceedingly and abundantly clear: This is the largest tax hike in state history, giving way to the largest budget in state history,” Brownback’s communications director Melika Willoughby said in one such email.

“This spend-happy legislature, congratulated by Sen. Bernie Sanders, would have you buy into the narrative that such historic tax hikes and ballooning budgets were necessary to fill budget gaps and fund schools at Supreme Court mandated levels,” she continued. “That’s simply false. They chose to spend brand new dollars, more than $200 million, on a legislative wish list. This is on top of increased funding for schools.”

Lawmakers who supported the tax increase have pointed out that much of the “legislative wish list” that Willoughby referred to included making a $140 million payment into the state pension system, which Brownback proposed canceling, and spending about $22 million to give small pay raises to state employees who have not had a raise in the last five years or more.

“This debate is going to go on, and it’s going to go on through next year’s election,” Tallman said. “And so we better be aware that this discussion of why taxes were raised, how much they were raised, what that means — we have to be part of that discussion.”