Kansas governor proposes $600M boost to school aid

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback proposed Tuesday that the state phase in a $600 million increase in spending on public schools over five years in hopes of meeting a court mandate, without telling legislators how he would pay for it.

The term-limited conservative Republican governor outlined the proposal in his eighth and final State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature. He tied the extra money to goals for raising teacher salaries, increasing the number of school counselors and psychologists and offering high school students courses that earn them college credit.

He also told lawmakers in his speech, “My proposal does not include a tax increase.”

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the state’s total aid of about $4.3 billion a year to its 286 school districts isn’t sufficient to meet a duty under the state constitution to provide a suitable education for every child. The court mandated more spending even though lawmakers last year phased in a $293 million increase over two years.

The Supreme Court didn’t set a specific spending target but hinted in its decision that spending must rise by as much as $650 million a year. It told lawmakers that a new school funding law must be in place before July 1, and it expressed a growing impatience with delays in boosting spending.

Many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, were frustrated by the court’s ruling because bipartisan majorities raised income taxes last year by roughly $600 million a year to help balance the budget while providing extra money for schools.

Top GOP leaders see no appetite for raising taxes again — or making deep cuts elsewhere in the budget to shift money to schools. Many legislators are skeptical that school funding can rise significantly without either step.

Senate President Susan Wagle called it a feel-good proposal that will force lawmakers to consider tax increases later. Denning said the plan is "insulting."

House Majority Leader Don Hineman of Dighton said he doesn't see how the plan will work.

And lawmakers have been debating whether the court would accept a law that phases in an increase in school funding over several years.

Brownback was expected to outline the details of his school funding proposal in budget recommendations released to lawmakers Wednesday.

The governor said he was proposing goals along with the funding because, “the people of Kansas expect results.”

“Money by itself will not solve the problem,” he said in his prepared text.

Brownback is term-limited after winning re-election in 2014, and President Donald Trump has nominated him to serve as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

He gained national attention for a first-term experiment in aggressive income tax-cutting and saw his popularity wane as the state experienced persistent budget problems. Voters in 2016 turned on his legislative allies, electing enough Democrats and GOP moderates to roll back most of his tax cuts.

In the Democratic response prepared before the speech, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, who is running for governor this year, said funding schools “fairly and sufficiently” is the most important issue facing lawmakers. He also praised the bipartisan majorities that raised taxes last year over Brownback’s veto.

The tax increase approved last year rolled back most of the past income tax cuts championed by Brownback in 2012 and 2013. State tax collections have exceeded expectations each of the past seven months even though the forecasts factored in the tax increases.

“We made significant progress in restoring fiscal responsibility to our state,” Ward said.

Brownback and his aides had not expected him to be giving this year’s address after Trump nominated him for the ambassador’s job in July. They had expected the U.S. Senate to confirm Brownback’s appointment in the fall, triggering his resignation and elevating Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to governor.

But the Senate failed to vote on Brownback’s nomination by the end of last year, requiring Trump to renominate him. The delay has created an awkward transition.