Governor takes aim at courts in State of the State speech

Makes clear his notion of the court's role in school finance issue

0 | Legislature

Gov. Sam Brownback delivering the State of the State message to the 2014 Legislature.

Gov. Sam Brownback delivering the State of the State message to the 2014 Legislature.

— Gov. Sam Brownback used his State of the State speech last night to repeat his call for statewide, all-day kindergarten and to throw a fresh rhetorical rebuke at the Kansas courts on school finance issues.

"Too many decisions are made by unaccountable, opaque institutions," Brownback said, deep into his 11-page speech. "Elected officials are sometimes complicit in this transference of power, because it removes them from accountability. So, let's be clear. On the number one item in the state budget - education - the Constitution empowers the Legislature - the people's representatives - to fund our schools.

"This is the people's business done by the people's house through the wonderfully untidy - but open for all to see - business of appropriations," he said. "Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else."

It was one of the speech's 14 applause points, mostly cheered by the Republicans who dominate both the House and Senate.

At odds with the courts

Five of the state's seven Supreme Court justices sat nearby but were frozen faced during the governor's remarks.

Lawmakers have been keenly waiting to see what the court will decide in the case of Gannon vs State of Kansas, which claims that the state underfunds its public schools and uses an unequal formula that puts children in poor school districts at disadvantage to those from richer ones.

A three-judge lower court earlier found that the state was in violation of the Kansas Constitution's education funding provisions and in their decision were critical of Brownback's signature accomplishment since taking office as the governor - the largest income tax cut in state history, enacted by the 2012 Legislature.

The lower court said the tax cut's passage appeared to them to be "in direct contravention of the spirit" of the Kansas law that states that school funding "shall be given first priority in the legislative budgeting process."

The governor's tax cuts virtually assure state revenues will drop over the next couple of years, leaving policymakers little or nothing to put into schools without a tax increase, even if a majority were inclined to spend the money.

Brownback's references to the tax cuts earned some of the biggest applause of the evening, but afterwards they were roundly criticized anew by House Democratic Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence attorney who is running against Browback for governor. Davis said the governor's tax policies have forced schools to lay off teachers and increase class sizes.

'Strong message'

Together, the governor's speech and Davis' could have been taken for the opening salvo of the 2014 election season.

But some Republicans also said the governor's tax policies were unpopular in their districts.

“What I’m hearing from my coffee-shop constituents is that the income-tax breaks were kind of ‘crazy,’ because the small businesses who got the breaks haven’t brought more jobs to Clay Center, they haven’t brought new machinery to Clay Center,” said Rep. Vern Swanson, whose district includes Clay Center and Fort Riley. “They may have helped some people pay a few bills or maybe let them save some money for a trip, but that’s about it. I’m hearing people say they don’t think the tax breaks were in the best interest of all Kansans.

“I’m all for cutting taxes, but I also understand the practicality of having enough money in the bank to fund the state budget,” he said. “I don’t think we can continue to cut. I think we have to find ways to make our government more efficient. But does that mean eliminating jobs and throwing people out of work? I don’t think so.”

Legislators said they thought there was little chance the justices could have missed the governor's point on school finance.

"It was a strong message to the public and definitely a strong message to the court," said House Speaker Pro-Tem Peggy Mast, an Emporia Republican.

If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court decision, the cost of complying could be $400 million or more and Brownback essentially told the justices they had no business determining how much the Legislature should spend on schools.

But a Brownback aide afterwards said the governor's remarks were intended to signal to judges what they "should do" more than what they "could do" because it was doubtful the Republican-run Legislature would spend more on schools even if directed to do so by the court.

Few policy statements

Apart from those pointed remarks on the court's role and the expansion of all-day kindergarten, the governor's speech contained few policy statements. The largest part of the speech was spent framing his tenure in office as a success for Kansas.

"Simply put...the government is back in its proper place, serving the people," Brownback said.

He said his budget would include money for a program meant "to bring doctors to rural Kansas," but mentioned it in passing and provided no details.

The program referenced is the Rural Bridging Program, which repays student loans for doctors trained at the University of Kansas medical school who go on to rural practice. The program receives about $70,000 a year and an aide to the governor said the new money would only allow for a modest increase but would be intended to pave the way for discussion of a bigger initiative in months to come. The governor's plan would double the $70,000 to $140,000, allowing 14 new doctors to participate in the student loan forgiveness program.

There was no mention in the speech of a possible Medicaid expansion, which Kansas hospitals and consumer groups are pushing to get on the Legislature's agenda this session despite continued GOP resistance to it.

Not an applause line

Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican from the party's moderate wing, said she was disappointed Brownback didn’t mention Medicaid expansion. A physician, Bollier said she favors expansion but doesn’t expect the issue will gain traction without leadership from the governor.

“He knew he couldn’t get legislators to stand and applaud, so he left it out of the speech,” she said. “That is our federal money and we should be able to use it to care for our people.”

“We’ve got a lot of small hospitals out in Southwest Kansas,” said Rep. Bud Estes, a Dodge City Republican. ”We can’t afford to lose any of them. It’ll be a real challenge.”

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Republican legislators stand to applaud a point made by Gov. Sam Brownback during the State of the State message while Democrats in the foreground remain seated.

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Hospital officials say their bottom lines will be hurt if the state does not expand Medicaid, imperiling their ability to provide services.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would pick up the full cost of expansion coverage through 2016 and 90 percent after that. But conservative Republicans, including the governor, have said they doubt the federal government will keep the funding promise.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said again that nothing is likely to happen this session on Medicaid expansion unless the governor urges action.

“It’s his call to tell us that he needs something done on Medicaid,” Merrick said. “It’s our job (the Legislature's) to decide what we’re going to do on Medicaid.”

Nor did the governor mention KanCare, his sweeping initiative launched Jan. 1, 2013 to "remake" the state's Medicaid program. His administration is pushing to expand the program to include long-term supports for the developmentally disabled but still needs approval from the federal government to do that.

Asking forgiveness

The governor made a point of apologizing on behalf of all Kansans to Native Americans and blacks for the way they were treated earlier in the state's history.

"I ask forgiveness for these wrongs we have done," he said.

His concluding remarks could have come from a pulpit and some critical legislators described the speech as a sermon.

"Our dependence is not on big government," Brownback said, "but on a big God that loves us and lives within us. Our future is bright. Our renaissance is assured if we move from dithering to action, if we listen to our own better angels and the still, small voice that calls us onward....which way to choose? We know the way. God wrote it in our hearts."

“It was true Sam Brownback," said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. "It’s such an honor to serve with a pro-jobs, pro-growth governor after you’ve served with the (Kathleen) Sebelius administration that was pro big government.”

-Staff writers Trevor Graff, Jim McLean and Dave Ranney contributed to this report.



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