A long slog ahead for Kansas, Brownback
The Kansas City Star
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s third State of the State address is memorable for a blustery challenge to the state of Texas, and an indication that the governor might back the very bad idea of electing statewide judges.
The budget unveiled after his speech, however, suggests that Brownback’s bravado regarding elimination of the state’s income tax is more bark than bite, at least for the short term.
In his speech Tuesday night, the Republican governor announced his desire to phase in more income tax reductions and eventually eliminate the tax altogether.
“Look out Texas, here comes Kansas!” he declared.
But the Lone Star State, which has no income tax, won’t be going head-to-head with Kansas right away. Brownback’s budget, stretched out over the next two years, contains no specific tax cuts. Rather, it holds spending mostly flat and proposes two controversial measures to make up for revenues lost when the governor and Legislature sharply and unwisely cut income tax rates last year.
Brownback invited a squabble with lawmakers, including many in his own party, by proposing to make permanent part of a one-cent sales tax that was supposed to go off the books in July. Continuation of that tax would fall most heavily on low-income Kansans, while the income tax reductions that recently went into effect mostly benefit more wealthy residents.
In a more sensible prescription, Brownback wants to eliminate the home mortgage interest and real estate deductions. But that too will provoke resistance from legislators.
Brownback’s budget also presumes the state will defy, or at least postpone, a lower court’s ruling that Kansas’ funding of elementary and secondary education is unconstitutionally low. Though not surprising, that assumption has ominous implications for schools, children and the future of an independent judiciary.
In his speech, Brownback called on the Legislature to pass a statute clarifying what constitutes “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state,” as called for in the state constitution, rather than leaving that call up to the courts.
The Legislature should be more clear about setting standards for funding schools. But lawmakers and the governor should also bear in mind that a suitable education is a constitutional right, which is why school boards have turned to the courts for redress.
Brownback suggested in his speech that the state’s appeals and Supreme Court judges should be elected directly by the people, or selected by the governor. That would bypass the current process whereby judicial candidates are screened by a nominating commission for final selection by the governor.
The current system produces good judges and shouldn’t be changed. But the notion of direct elections is especially dangerous. Confidence in the courts would plummet if Koch Industries or any other special interest were able to influence judicial selection by bankrolling candidates.
A bright spot in the budget was Brownback’s willingness to hold funding for higher education relatively steady, with a $45 million boost in bonding authority and general fund spending for a new education building at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Overall, though, Brownback’s budget makes clear the long slog the state must endure to climb out of the hole created by the reckless income tax cuts.