Kansas State of State address: Brownback appeals to GOP base
Topeka Republican Gov. Sam Brownback used his 2016 State of the State address Tuesday night to deliver a stinging rebuke of President Barack Obama over foreign policy and national security issues, while signaling that he has no interest in expanding Medicaid under the federal health law commonly known as Obamacare.
He also called on lawmakers to write a new school funding system based on merit pay for teachers, while also announcing that he has ordered the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to cut off all Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood.
"Planned Parenthood's trafficking of body parts is antithetical to our belief in human dignity," Brownback said, referring to a charge that Planned Parenthood has steadfastly denied. "Today, I am directing (KDHE) Secretary Susan Mosier to ensure that not a single dollar of taxpayer money goes to Planned Parenthood through our Medicaid program."
The speech came at the start of the 2016 legislative session. But with the 2016 election cycle looming ahead, it appeared at times to be designed to mobilize conservative Republican voters by lashing out at Obama, who was scheduled to deliver his final State of the Union address hours later, at 8 p.m.
For example, among the budget items he asked lawmakers to approve was an unspecified amount of funding for enhanced security at the state's National Guard facilities.
"Elected officials have a responsibility to protect our citizens from all threats, foreign and domestic. In this, the President has refused to lead," Brownback said. "He has prioritized his agenda and the feelings of the radical Islamic terrorists over the safety of Americans."
Brownback also called attention to his own recent executive orders barring state agencies from spending any funds to help resettle Syrian refugees in Kansas, an order that was later expanded to include any refugee who may pose a security risk. And he criticized the president for seeking to admit more refugees into the United States.
"Instead of simply pausing his reseettlement plan and working with the governors to address their legitimate security concerns, President Obama has chosen to pursue a path that puts Americans at risk," Brownback said.
Noticeably absent from the speech, though, was any mention of how he intends to address the projected $14 million revenue shortfall in the current year's budget, or the projected $175 million shortfall in the next fiscal year that begins July 1.
Those details are expected to be unveiled during briefings Wednesday morning before the House and Senate budget committees.
He did, however, tout what he said are evidence that his tax and economic policies are working.
"More than half the people who were on welfare are now off it, and more importantly, they are getting out of poverty," Brownback said.
"We have controlled spending, reformed tax policy, and reduced burdensome regulations," he said.
"We have consolidated agencies, eliminated wasteful programs, and overhauled workers compensation."
Brownback also outlined a number of policy issues he wants to pursue this year, including a new school finance formula that would include merit pay for the most effective teachers, a system that he said would ensure that more of the state's education budget will go toward instruction.
"I call on the Legislature to design a new education funding system that puts more of our money into instruction," he said. "That provides bonuses for exceptional teachers and recognizes their true value to our future and the souls of our students."
But merit pay has long been a contentious issue for teachers unions, as well as some school boards, who say that measuring a teacher's effectiveness is more complex than it seems. Union officials have frequently argued that merit pay tends to reward teachers in more affluent districts, and punishes those who teach in inner city districts where more students live in poverty or come from non-English speaking families.
Brownback also called for a constitutional amendment to change the way Supreme Court justices are selected, an issue that has been on the conservatives' agenda for several years in the wake of controversial Supreme Court decisions on school finance and the death penalty.
"Kansas is the only state in the country where the selection of Supreme Court justices is controlled by a handful of lawyers," he said. He was referring to the merit selection process now in place in which a nonpartisan panel made up of both attorneys and nonattorneys screens candidates and sends the governor a list of three nominees from which to pick.
"Well, enough is enough," he said. "The Legislature should put before Kansas voters a proposed Constitutional amendment for a more democratic selection process for our Supreme Court justices."