State Of The State: Brownback Urges Tax Cuts, Judicial Changes

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) _ A pledge to further cut income taxes and harsh words for the judiciary topped Gov. Sam Brownback's State of the State address Tuesday night.

Brownback says he'll propose a two-year state budget that increases overall school spending and provides essential services. He also calls for another step toward eliminating the Kansas income tax.

"Look out Texas, here comes Kansas," Brownback said in touting the state's income tax moving from highest in the region to now second-lowest.

Brownback's budget recommendation will drop income tax rates to 1.9 percent for low-income families and 3.5 percent for the highest bracket. The current rates are 3 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively. But he also advocates keeping a sales tax hike, set to expire this summer. The proposal drew mixed reviews from his own party.

Sen. President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said if lawmakers can actually move the income tax rate toward zero, the sales tax option is worth exploring. But Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, says she made a difficult vote in order shore up the budget three years ago with the promise the sales tax would sunset and she intends to keep the promise.

The Governor also unveiled the Kansas Reads to Succeed initiative. It will invest $12 million in programs to help struggling readers and require third graders demonstrate ability to read before promotion to fourth grade.

"Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can't read is irresponsible and cruel," Brownback said. "We can do better."

As for budget savings, Brownback proposes merging the Kansas Department of Transportation and Kansas Turnpike Authority under one secretary of transportation. His lack of detail on other cuts, with a projected $267 million dollar shortfall already next fiscal year, had some Democrats doubtful. Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, was among them, saying there will be winners and losers and she suspects nothing will actually get any new money - it will simply be shifted around.

Brownback saved his harshest criticism for the judiciary. Friday, a district court ruled current school funding was unconstitutional.

"I ask you to make it clear in law that defining what is suitable provision for public education is a job for the people's elected representatives - and no one else," Brownback told lawmakers.

Brownback added he'd support changing how Kansas selects its judges, whether it be a shift toward electing justices or the federal model of gubernatorial appointment with Senate confirmation.

From here, the proposals become bills - the details of which begin to be revealed Wednesday morning, when the Governor submits his budget.

"Let us build a better state and do it now," Brownback said.

Brownback says his budget also includes funding for a new crime lab and training facility on the Washburn University campus.

The Governor's address did bring several bipartisan feel-good moments. Sen. Wagle received two standing ovations to start the address when Brownback noted he was the first governor to be able to say, "Welcome, Madam President." Wagle is the first woman elected to lead either chamber.

Brownback also recognized Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who is beginning his 37th year in the legislature. The loudest cheers of the night, though, when the Governor asked Don Wistuba to stand and take a bow. Wistuba, who is blind, has operated the Statehouse snack bar since 1976.

"He truly is a gift of joy to the Capitol," Brownback said.