Brownback pushes agenda on taxes, schools, health care and state retirement for 2012

This is a view from the front balcony of the Senate chambers at the Topeka Capitol building. Several images were merged in Photoshop to created the panorama.

? One year ago, when then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, was asked if he had apprehensions about turning over the office to Republican Sam Brownback, Parkinson said no.

Despite having witnessed the election of the most conservative governor in modern Kansas history and a tidal wave of conservatives in the House, Parkinson said he thought the Kansas public would somehow moderate their government.

“I think that in the area of social policy, the most prominent topic, of course, is abortion … in the area of social policy, I think it will be fairly easy for him (Brownback) to make changes and get legislation through that he would like and satisfy some of those constituencies,” Parkinson said.

But, he added, “When it comes to the area of budget and revenue, budget and taxes, it will be a lot harder. Those are issues that create all sorts of divides that are not necessarily Republican and Democrat. They can be more urban and rural. They can have a lot to do with your particular school district.

“So, if his constituency will be satisfied with a social agenda, I think he can make them happy. If his constituency is requiring an overhaul of the budget, a complete revamping of the tax system, a rewriting of the school finance formula, he’s going to have a lot of headaches. That’s a lot harder to do.”

Parkinson correctly predicted the outcome of the 2011 legislative session. Brownback, indeed, signed into law several bills restricting abortion, all of which were approved in the Republican-dominated Legislature and are in various stages of legal challenges. He signed into law voter-photo ID that has been pushed by Republicans across the nation. In a philosophical battle, that has continued to confound many, Brownback also made Kansas the first and only state to stop funding the arts.

For the 2012 legislative session, Brownback is wading into what Parkinson called the “lot harder to do” issues.

‘Significant’ session predicted

Brownback has said the session, which starts Jan. 9, will be one of “the most significant” in decades.

He plans to try to revamp the tax code, which will include lowering the state personal income tax.

He has released an overhaul of the school finance system that removes state limits on local school districts to raise property taxes for schools as high as they want.

He plans to turn over management of the entire Medicaid system to private managed care companies.

And he has pushed for and supports a study commission’s recommendation to replace the traditional defined benefit public employee pension with a 401(k)-style savings plan.

He also plans to stir the complex world of water law.

And there’s more.

Brownback will push his agenda during the politically-charged process of redrawing political boundaries during redistricting.

Once the session ends, all legislative positions will be before the voters, which, at least according to one recent survey, have expressed mixed feelings about what they want from the state.

The Kansas Speaks statewide survey done by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University showed 65 percent of Kansans want to increase school funding, and 59 percent want to increase funding for social services. But 52 percent want to cut overall state spending.

Lowering tax rates

Brownback argues that Kansas is falling behind the region and nation in economic growth. He says lower taxes will lure more business to the state, and he has used the growth of Texas, which doesn’t have a state income tax, as an example to follow.

Brownback’s administration has refused to reveal information on who it is talking to as it forms a plan to reduce personal income taxes.

The administration has hired Arthur Laffer, one of the architects of President Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics, for $75,000 to provide consulting on the initiative. A recent Washington Post story on what Brownback was doing in Kansas, quoted Laffer as saying, “It’s a revolution in a cornfield. Brownback and his whole group there, it’s an amazing thing they’re doing. Truly revolutionary.”

But Brownback’s plan to overhaul the state tax system has appeared to have gotten some push back. Lowering the personal income tax would remove dollars to a state budget that was whacked repeatedly during the Great Recession. As the state’s economy improves, some have argued the top priority should be restoring budget cuts, not cutting taxes.

Brownback’s tax plan was expected to be released in November, but has been put off until his State of the State speech on Jan. 11.

And Republican leaders in the Senate have taken a different approach to the issue.

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, has formed a bipartisan tax study group, which includes legislators and private citizens who will consider a number of proposals, including Brownback’s.

“It will be very helpful to receive comment and consideration from a group of private citizens who come from different and diverse parts of the state,” Morris said.

“These people know what works and what does not work in their individual businesses and communities, and they have first-hand knowledge of what helps or hinders economic growth in their areas,” he said.

School finance fight expected

Consuming about half of the state budget, school funding is one of the most hotly debated issues before Kansas policymakers.

Citing frequent litigation over school finance, Brownback has said he wants to overhaul the formula used to divide up nearly $3 billion and put the Legislature — not the judiciary — in charge of school funding.

His plan would eliminate state limits on local school districts raising property taxes for education. It would provide a small increase to some of the smallest school districts in Kansas, but nearly all mid-sized and large districts would see no increase.

Advocates of school funding say Brownback’s so-called “hold harmless” provision would lock in funding levels that have been cut to the bone. The current level of base state aid per pupil is at its lowest point in a decade.

“To the extent that the Brownback plan permanently enshrines the cuts to education funding of the last few years, it is a plan that is inadequate for a state that hopes to capitalize on a recovering economy and develop a workforce ready for the challenges of the 21st century,” the Kansas-NEA said.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said public school education has a special place in the hearts of Kansans. “It’s almost like a legacy. It’s what we think we should be all about,” she said.

Health care privatization

The Brownback administration is seeking contract bids to managed care companies.

Like many states, Kansas is trying to reduce the growing costs in the program that is funded through federal and state dollars and provides health care coverage to 350,000 Kansas residents.

But unlike most states that have gone the managed care route, Kansas wants to include in its contracts care for those with developmental disabilities.

Advocates for Kansans with developmental disabilities say the required long-term care needs don’t fit well with managed care.

KPERS overhaul pushed

Brownback also is pushing for a change in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.

A plan pushed by Brownback and other Republicans would eliminate the pension plan for future hires and some current employees and replace it with a 401(k)-style savings plan.

Democrats say the proposal does nothing to fix long-term funding issues within KPERS and will leave future retirees with little.