Brownback highlights some positive news; provides some thoughts on K-12 funding, economy woes

When you’re enclosed in the Statehouse on a full-time basis, it’s easy to get consumed by it all, and it’s often hard to see a world beyond the partisanship, the budget shortfalls and whatever else that may constitute the Scandal of the Day.

So in fairness, Gov. Sam Brownback may have done the Statehouse press corps a service Friday morning by opening and closing a press conference by redirecting reporters’ attention to a few things going on outside the building that many people might find positive and interesting.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of questions about the current budget situation, the prospect of a costly Supreme Court order on school finance, or the true condition of Kansas highways.

But this reporter is willing to admit it was kind of refreshing to hear that despite all of its budget woes, the people of Kansas – with or without state government’s help – are still capable of doing some pretty cool things, like developing a 117-mile Flint Hills Trail, which will eventually stretch between Herrington and Osawatomie.

“It’s been worked on for a number of years by different volunteer groups, different segments of it, but we’re getting it built up to a high-quality hiking, biking, horseback riding trail,” Brownback said, reporting that he’d just visited one segment of the trail. “This is a nice trail. I believe when we’re done with this, it will compete with, and be better than, the Katy Trail in Missouri.”

He also mentioned that as of now, nearly 24 percent of all the electricity generated in Kansas is coming from renewable sources, mostly wind but also including some solar, which is far more than the original Renewable Portfolio Standard goal of 20 percent by 2020. And on particularly bright, windy days like the ones we’ve had lately, the number can run as high as 30 percent.

Brownback also tried to highlight the condition of Kansas highways, which is a subject of much dispute around the Statehouse. He pointed to a recent report that ranked Kansas third in the nation for the overall quality of its highway system.

But reporters quickly bristled at that, as most did when the report came out in September, because it was based on 2013 data, and the study was conducted by the Reason Foundation, a self-described libertarian think tank that is funded in part by various Koch family foundations. And what the report actually said wasn’t that Kansas had the third “best” highways, but rather third most “cost effective,” which is still a nice thing, but not the same thing.

Questions, however, quickly turned to other matters, such as whether he will propose a 5-percent budget cut next year and, if so, where the axe will fall.

Brownback’s budget office had earlier instructed agencies to include in their budget proposals contingency plans for a 5-percent cut in the upcoming fiscal year. Then he instructed them not to release those documents to the media. Later, his budget director Shawn Sullivan announced that the governor would not propose any “across-the-board” budget cuts next year, leaving open the possibility that there could be deep, but targeted cuts throughout state government.

Most governors, however, are loathe to divulge their budget plans before they deliver it to the Legislature, and Brownback is no exception. He quickly brushed off nearly all budget-related questions, including one about whether higher education should prepare to take another big hit.

“I’m not going to say,” he said. “I want to look and see what the situation is, and ultimately it’s up to the Legislature. They’re the appropriators.”

He then detoured into familiar territory, giving his description of the Kansas economy, which he maintains is the root cause of the state’s revenue problems, not the tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013.

“There are kind of three geographic regions of the Kansas economy,” he said. “Kansas City is doing great and producing a lot of revenue for the state. The Wichita-Topeka axis in this area is doing okay. Not doing what Kansas City is, but it’s okay. Then you’ve got that third, basically, Kansas economy that’s more rural and has really been struggling.”

He compared the current rural economy to the farm crisis of the 1980s, when land values collapsed, many farms went bankrupt and roughly 100 banks in Kansas went under.

He said he attended a recent agricultural law conference, “and people there said we’re starting to see things line up of a similar difficulty. Not the same. It won’t be the same. The agriculture industry structure is different. The oil industry structure is different. But they’re saying, you’ve now had multiple years of very low commodity prices. People can hold on for several years, but then after that, there’s not anything left, and that’s the piece that’s really been a struggle.”

And that, he suggested, is why the consensus revenue estimates have been so far off the last couple of years. And he said a task force he appointed will issue a report Tuesday on suggested changes in the way budget officials should forecast future revenues.

Brownback was a little more forthcoming on the subject of K-12 education funding. He said there has been a lot of response to his public call for suggestions and comment about what a new funding formula should look like, but so far nothing very specific.

One idea that, surprisingly, has had some quiet but serious discussion in the Statehouse would be not to write a school funding formula at all, but instead to turn the entire K-12 budget over to the Kansas State Department of Education and let them figure out how to divvy it up. That department, the argument goes, has a large and professionally trained staff that, unlike the Legislature, works on education issues year-around. Also, it could mean that the department, not the Legislature, would be the one to get sued the next time there’s a complaint about funding equity.

“I’ve heard that. It’s similar to what we do with the Regents. We’ll see what people want to do,” he said.

Like everyone else, Brownback said he’s waiting to see how the Kansas Supreme Court rules in the pending school finance lawsuit. But one thing he did appear to take off the table was the Kansas State Board of Education’s suggestion, included in its budget request, that to achieve the educational outcomes that both the court and the Legislature have said are necessary will take an additional $900 million over the next two years.

“Nine hundred million. Wow, that would be a big tax increase somewhere. I don’t know where you would come up with $900 million additional funding from the current, existing structure,” he said.