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Governor Brownback Outlines Policy Priorities in Kansas State of the State Address

Governor Sam Brownback during the speech Tuesday. (Photo by Andy Marso)

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback laid out new policy proposals and budget plans during his State of the State Address Tuesday. Even though Kansas faces a budget deficit adding up to almost a billion dollars by next year, the governor began his speech by showcasing some of the state's strong points. KPR's Stephen Koranda reports. 

Traditionally, the State of the State speech gives the governor a chance to outline his policy initiatives and budget priorities, but it's also a chance to brag about achievements. That's just what Governor Brownback did.
“Our state has record population, record new businesses, record grain production and record income. My fellow Kansans, it’s for these reasons and more that I can report to you that the state of our state is indeed strong,” said Brownback.
On the budget front, things aren’t quite as strong. Kansas has a nearly $350 million deficit in the current year and a more than $550 million hole next year. Brownback didn’t say too much about his budget plan, but he will work on efficiency first and propose combining some state entities. He stressed the plan would be balanced.
“Balanced, in that it adequately supports the core functions of state government while finding necessary efficiencies. Balanced, in that it addresses both sides of the ledger, both revenues and expenditures. The days of tax first, cut never have come to an end,” said Brownback.
Brownback didn’t explain what he meant when he said he’ll offer “modest, targeted revenue measures,” but he tried to shoot down one policy lawmakers are considering, reinstating income taxes on more than 300,000 Kansas businesses. 
“The purpose of our small business tax cut has been to increase the number of small businesses and increase private sector job growth. That policy has worked,” said Brownback.
“I hate to say it, but I think the governor is in an unbelievable state of denial,” said Democratic House member Kathy Wolfe Moore in response to the speech. She said there have been spending cuts. She also points to some challenges, such as the budget deficit and some reports showing job losses.
“It’s time to face reality. This didn’t work. This tax plan simply does not work. We need to go a different direction,” said Wolfe Moore.
Republican Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine said the governor’s comments probably won’t stop discussion of repealing the tax cut.
“The LLC exemption that I think the Kansas people have spoken loudly against might be one of those areas where we disagree with the governor,” said Longbine.
But other lawmakers believe the governor was right on track with his comments on cutting spending and minimizing new revenue.
“I’m not in favor of any tax increase. Period. This is not a tax problem, this is a spending problem,” said Republican Representative John Whitmer after the speech.
He said they tried a tax increase two years ago that included sales taxes and other changes. From his perspective, the tax hike didn’t work because they needed more cuts.
“Here we are once again, we’ve got a $400 million hole, and once again they want to raise taxes to fix it. That’s not the problem. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, I’m not raising taxes again,” says Whitmer.
Brownback also reiterated his opposition to expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to provide health care for more low-income Kansans. He said the federal election means Obamacare will be repealed, and if Kansas had expanded Medicaid, the budget situation could be even worse. 
“For states that took the expansion path, the reckoning could be severe. Given these facts, it would be foolish to endorse Obamacare expansion of Medicaid now. It’s akin to airlifting onto the Titanic. Kansas was right,” said Brownback.
This is another issue where the governor and a new crop of lawmakers might butt heads. Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine said Medicaid expansion will be on the table.
“I do think it’s prudent at this point to get a better feel of where the federal government is going, but I do expect Medicaid expansion conversations to continue through the session. Ultimately, I hope that we can come to some kind of resolution on that,” said Longbine.
Brownback also weighed in on higher education, challenging state universities to offer a four-year degree for only $15,000. And he said when lawmakers write a new public school funding formula this year, they should focus on how to improve student performance. 
“We need predictability and sustainability for both educators and taxpayers. We need to measure success not by dollars spent, but by the achievement of our students,” said Brownback.
Brownback outlined some of his visions for Kansas in the speech. Wednesday, his budget director will provide some details as the governor’s spending plan is presented to lawmakers.

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