TOPEKA, Kan. — Departing Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is counting on growing tax revenues from a strong national economy to pay for his proposal to increase spending on public schools, stoking an open revolt Wednesday among fellow Republicans who control the Legislature.
The term-limited conservative Republican governor released budget proposals that were supposed to flesh out his plan to phase in a $601 million increase in education funding to meet a court mandate. But his recommendations contained no way to pay for the increase other than relying on growing revenues, and no fiscal projections beyond mid-2019.
Top GOP lawmakers already were upset by the idea even before Brownback outlined his school funding proposal in his eighth and final State of the State address Tuesday evening. They fear they would be forced to consider raising taxes or making deep cuts elsewhere while also shorting public pensions and highway projects next year, when Brownback is out of office.
“I’m not sure what the logic is behind it,” said state Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Wichita-area Republican and usual ally of Brownback. “That’s irresponsible, to propose that much new spending without understanding where it’s coming from.”
Brownback’s proposed $16.8 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning in July would leave the state with a small cushion of cash reserves at the end of June 2019, without requiring another tax increase. Lawmakers approved a $600-million-a-year income tax increase last year over Brownback’s veto to help balance the budget.
Lawmakers must come up with more money for schools after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the state isn’t meeting its funding obligations under the state constitution. Lawmakers have been debating whether the court would accept an increase phased in over multiple years. The $601 million increase touted by Brownback includes $88 million appropriated last year in a previous effort to satisfy the court.
“I support the rule of law, and I will not stand to see schools closed because of inaction on our part,” Brownback said in a statement late Wednesday, touching on fears that the court could shut down schools if lawmakers defy it.
If Brownback hoped to quiet the discontent within his party, he failed. Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, quickly replied with a statement saying she was pointing out his administration’s “hypocrisy.”
“This proposal marks a drastic departure from fiscal restraint,” she said.
The governor’s proposed budget also includes extra spending to continue pay raises granted in the fall for officers in the state’s stressed prison system, cover gaps in funding for state mental hospitals and raise reimbursements for hospitals and nursing homes providing services to the poor and elderly.
“Thankfully the economy is stronger than it has been,” Brownback said.
Brownback must leave office in January 2019 but President Donald Trump nominated him in July as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The U.S. Senate’s failure to vote on Brownback’s appointment has created an awkward transition to a new governor.
And top Republican legislators were angry because Brownback strongly criticized last year’s tax increase, which rolled back past income tax cuts he’d championed in 2012 and 2013 following persistent budget woes. He accused them of using the new revenues to finance unnecessary spending.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from western Kansas, described the budget proposal as “a fantasy.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, initially called Brownback’s proposal “insulting” and said Wednesday after seeing more details, “It doesn’t look any better.”
Brownback’s administration worked on its budget proposals for weeks, allowing hints to leak to lawmakers early.
Republican legislative leaders already had shown their displeasure with Brownback by blocking a plan to build a new prison in the Kansas City area and by criticizing a proposal to have private insurance companies administer the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the poor, disabled and elderly.
Brownback called such moves “political gamesmanship.”
“It is neither constructive nor wise to hold hostage other critical initiatives,” he said.
Legislators already are reviewing projections from their staff showing that even with last year’s tax increase and no extra money for schools, budget problems could arise in 2020 and 2021.
Even Democrats, seeing new funds for schools as desirable, considered Brownback’s proposal unworkable.
“There’s a mean-spiritedness to this because he’s putting the Legislature in a tough position by making these recommendations for all of this spending, which we can’t afford,” said state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat running for governor. “We’re going to have to be the bad guys.”
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