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Brownback Uses State of the State to Say Goodbye

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told lawmakers Tuesday night the state can solve its school funding woes without a tax hike. It was his final State of the State address.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback effectively said goodbye last night in a State of the State speech that was short on policy recommendations but long on reflection. We get this recap from (KCUR’s) Jim McLean (of the Kansas News Service). 

Brownback’s self-described “swan song” to a joint session of the legislature was less political than his past State of the State speeches.

There was no vow to fight Medicaid expansion, no insistence that the income tax cuts he championed would have worked if lawmakers hadn’t repealed them, and no harsh words for the Kansas Supreme Court justices he once tried to remove from the bench. Instead, he gave them an impromptu nod while making introductions before starting his speech.

At times Brownback sounded more preacher than politician. Asking lawmakers to reflect on the meaning of life by recounting the story of meeting a World War 1 veteran and asking him about the biggest change he’d seen in his 107 years on the planet.

“Without hesitation, he said, ‘When I was young we didn’t have anything but we were a lot happier.’ Certainly, our material wealth had progressed in his lifetime but has our happiness kept pace? It’s a good question for us as policymakers to ponder.”

Sandwiched between such reflections, Brownback did address the biggest policy question facing lawmakers: How much to spend on public schools.

His surprising answer, a lot more.

“My budget recommendation includes an additional $600 million in funding over the next five years. This multi-year approach will provide the time necessary for school districts to plan and spend this additional money more effectively. My proposal does not include a tax increase.”

Several lawmakers objected to Brownback’s plan to comply with the Supreme Court order to boost school funding for schools.

Even some top Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, who called it a “fairy tale” proposal.

“This is reckless. He’s given everybody a sense of false hope that he’s just solved the school issue when he’s made it a hell of a lot worse.”

Republican Representative Melissa Rooker says that $600 million may be the amount needed to satisfy the Court. But she says without funding details, the governor’s proposal is an empty promise.

“I have to question how this proposal is any more than a feel-good talking point on the governor’s way out the door.”

Denning says Brownback does have a funding plan but it’s not realistic because it would continue cuts to highways and public employee pensions.

Not everyone was ready to reject the governor’s plan out of hand. Mark Tallman lobbies for Kansas school boards. He says while a five-year phase in may be too long, Brownback is at least in the ballpark when it comes to money.

“We’re certainly pleased that the governor talked about a number that I think most people in the education community believe is the right number.”

The job of working with lawmakers to forge a solution probably won’t fall to Brownback. He’s preparing to join the Trump administration as an ambassador for religious freedom. That means it may soon be up to Lieutenant Governor Jeff Colyer to step up and provide the necessary leadership.

Brownback took a few minutes in his speech to praise Colyer’s humanitarian work as a doctor but stopped short of endorsing him in the crowded 2018 governor’s race.

“Whether it’s helping a disabled child in Kansas with a cleft pallet or a malnourished refugee in places like Sudan, Rwanda or Syria, my friend Jeff has served others in ways that many of us only dream of.”

Governors typically use the State of the State speech to lay out their policy priorities -- Brownback has done that in the past, but this final speech was different. Critics and sinking poll numbers aside, it was Brownback’s last chance to end his seven-plus years as governor on a high note.

“Because of our good people, this good land called Kansas and the blessings of almighty God, I can report to you that the state of our state is indeed strong and very promising. God bless you all.”

A declaration that would have brought lawmakers to their feet in Brownback’s early years as governor, but now gets only polite applause.

Jim McLean is an editor and reporter for KCUR 89.3. He is the managing director of KCUR's Kansas News Service, a collaboration between KCUR and other public media stations across Kansas.