Topeka In his final State of the State address, Gov. Sam Brownback called Tuesday for phasing in a $600 million increase in school funding over the next five years without raising taxes, a proposal that both Republican and Democratic leaders said after the speech was unrealistic, with one GOP leader even calling it “insulting.”
“We have received the decree of the Kansas Supreme Court and are putting forth a proposal to comply, as we have done with the prior decisions,” he said. “My budget recommendation includes an additional $600 million in funding over the next five years.
“This multiyear approach will provide the time necessary for school districts to plan and spend this additional money more effectively,” he added. “My proposal does not include a tax increase.”
Brownback’s budget director, Shawn Sullivan, is scheduled to brief lawmakers and the media on details of the budget proposal Wednesday morning.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Oct. 2 that the current funding mechanism, which lawmakers passed in the 2017 session, is unconstitutional because it is both inadequate and inequitable.
The court did not give a specific dollar amount that would be needed to meet the adequacy requirement. But the Kansas State Board of Education has suggested it needs roughly an additional $600 million a year — on top of the $293 million increase that lawmakers agreed in 2017 to phase in over two years — in order to meet the educational outcomes the court has said are necessary.
Brownback also laid out three goals he thinks the state’s educational system should achieve: a 95 percent high school graduation rate, having at least 75 percent of high school graduates go on to post-secondary education, and accelerating the movement of schools to the new “Kansans Can” model recently adopted by the State Board of Education.
He also said he wants at least part of the money to be used to raise teacher pay so the average teacher salary in Kansas is higher than that of any surrounding state. He also called for adding 150 school counselors and psychologists a year, but did not specify over how many years this would take place.
In addition to adding funding for schools, however, Brownback also called for putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year amending Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which deals with school finance. However, he did not specify what kind of changes he would like to see, saying only, “We must stop the never-ending cycle of litigation on school finance.”
Legislative reaction was almost universally negative toward the governor’s call for phasing in a $600 million school funding increase.
“It’s not plausible,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, in an interview after the speech. “I have my doubts. Severe doubts.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning speculated that the only way to accomplish Brownback’s plan would be to continue reducing payments into the state retirement system and sweeping money out of highway funds and to cut funding for other state agencies.
“None of those things are possible with what he just told everybody,” Denning said. “It’s an impossible ask. It’s almost a fairy tale. It’s insulting to me. It should be very insulting to the courts, because he’s just ignoring everything that they told us to do to solve this thing.”
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, agreed the money would likely have to come out of retirement contributions and highway funds, and that funding would need to be cut elsewhere, as well.
“We’re already failing to meet our obligation to our employees and retirees,” he said. “The highway system is deteriorating. He also talked about pure water and adequate water, but he hasn’t funded any of that. So it’ll be interesting to see whether legislators have an appetite for making those hard choices.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, who was a leader in putting together the bipartisan coalition that passed the 2017 funding changes, as well as a tax increase to pay for it that was passed by overriding Brownback’s veto, said she would like to see $600 million more go into education, but she doubted Brownback has the political capital to push his own package through this year.
“This governor, who fought us tooth and nail last year, vetoed us and forced the whole showdown, and then attacked those of us willing to override the veto throughout the summer and fall, now is so willing on his way out the door to spend the money,” she said. “... It baffles me why he didn’t just get to work with us last year and help lead us through the crises that we’re dealing with at the state level.”
Democrats, meanwhile, said they supported the idea of a $600 million increase in concept, but also were skeptical that it could be done without additional revenue.
“I think it’s a good place to start the discussion, in terms of what is an adequate amount of money that we have to provide,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said. “We just don’t have the details that we need in order to proceed with any sort of serious consideration of his proposal.”
Brownback was not expected to deliver the State of the State address this year because he was nominated by President Donald Trump last summer to be the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The U.S. Senate did not act on his nomination before the end of the year, so it was sent back to the White House, which resubmitted it to the Senate Monday.
If Brownback is confirmed, he will be succeeded in office by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
— Statehouse reporter Peter Hancock can be reached at 354-4222. Follow him on Twitter: @LJWpqhancock