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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 8:59 PM

Governor vows continued push to right budget

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer

The nation can go its own way, but Kansas will continue on its planned path toward prosperity, Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday during his State of the State address.

A day after Kansas’ 2013 legislative session began, Brownback addressed state legislators, urging fortitude and benevolence during the lawmaking season.

“In an era when many believe America has lost its way, Kansans know the difficult path that the nation must take,” Brownback said, according to a release. “It is the well-worn sod tracks of hard work, thrift, patience, perseverance, faith, sacrifice and family that will get us where we want our country to be. And as has been our tradition since before statehood, our place, Kansas, will not be timid in doing what is right, even if much of the Nation takes another way.”

During the address, Brownback highlighted tidbits of his 2014 and 2015 budget proposal, which he released Wednesday. His budget calls for a modest increase in education funding in 2014, but is significantly short of the spending figure a Shawnee District Court ruled Friday was necessary.

Brownback’s budget would usher in $76 million in aid to public schools during the next two years ­— only 17 percent of the court’s $440 million suggested increase. The court ruled that spending cuts through recent legislative sessions have spurred an “unconstitutional eroding” of Kansas’ education funding.

Although his plan adds no base state aid per pupil in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, Brownback’s proposed increase of education aid in the future would derive largely from state-owned casinos and would help provide for teachers’ pensions, according to media reports.

“The Kansas economy is growing,” Brownback said Wednesday, according to a release. “My [fiscal year] 2014 and 2015 budgets are crafted to bring long-term budget stability and economic prosperity through significant reform while maintaining the state’s core responsibilities. ... This glide path to zero will not cut funding for schools, higher education or essential safety net programs.”

Such efforts, however, still fall short of the state’s constitutional responsibilities, one local Democratic leader said. Caleb Correll, chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Party, said Wednesday that while he’s appreciative of some increased funding for public schools, the governor’s plan doesn’t go far enough.

“[Brownback’s] plan for funding public education fails to meet the constitutional criteria of adequate funding our education,” Correll said, adding that he’s critical of how the governor plans to fund such increases. “How are we funding schools? Through a regressive tax system. It’s putting more of a burden on low-end taxpayers and easing the burden on higher-end taxpayers.”

To address budgetary shortfalls caused by massive income tax cuts, Brownback’s budget also would extend a temporary sales tax increase and eliminate an income tax deduction for interest paid on home mortgages.

The plan already has drawn scrutiny from both Republicans and Democrats in the Kansas Legislature. In fact, some in Brownback’s camp have acknowledged the budget proposal’s potential to rouse opposition.

“One thing I think I can say with some certainty here today is everyone will see something they don’t like in this budget,” Steven Anderson, Brownback’s budget director, said, according to media reports.

Brownback’s office affirms, however, that eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction eventually will come back to Kansans via individual income tax cuts.

“As the individual income tax rate ratchets down, the mortgage interest tax deduction will become less and less valuable to taxpayers and again the governor proposes abolishing it,” Brownback’s office said, according to media reports.

State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said that while he dislikes the idea of eliminating that deduction, it might be necessary for the state budget.

“As a guy with a mortgage myself, I know there is a benefit to having a home mortgage deduction,” Finch said, noting that Brownback forwarded the idea last year. “Personally I think it’s going to have to be looked at pretty seriously because of the revenue shortfall that we’re looking at this year. … I‘d hate to see that incentive go away.”

Finch said that while there are elements of Brownback’s budget that he’s unsure of, he’s pleased that the governor is drafting a two-year plan.

“It is sound fiscal policy to plan for future years,” Finch said. “I agree with this initiative.”

Following the release of Brownback’s proposed budget, the Kansas Democratic Party took to social media to air its grievances. In questioning the governor’s tax plans, Kansas Democrats also highlighted Brownback’s gambit of how to pay for the aforementioned income tax cuts.

“Do you own property in Kansas?” the party asked via Twitter. “Do you have a mortgage? Do you buy goods in Kansas? … If you do, Gov. Sam Brownback wants to raise your taxes.”

In other cost-cutting efforts mentioned during the address, Brownback encouraged lawmakers to merge the Kansas Turnpike Authority with the Kansas Department of Transportation. Such a merger, Brownback said, would save the state $30 million in the next two years.

“It is time that we realize the efficiencies to be gained by placing these two operations under the same umbrella,” Brownback said to legislators, according to a release. “We don’t need two highway departments in Kansas. One is enough.”

Ultimately, Brownback’s office conceded that it’s the Legislature’s job to draft the appropriate budget for the state.

“We understand this is a process,” Anderson said. “And in that process, the governor proposes and the Legislature perfects.”

Finch concurred with such sentiments, adding that there’s still a lot of legislative work to do before lawmakers vote yay or nay.

“This is the beginning of the process,” Finch said. “Every governor submits a budget and then the Legislature has an opportunity to take a look to tweak it.”

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