- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Republican Gov. Sam Brownback outlined a plan Wednesday for a scholarship program to attract new teachers to rural Kansas schools and suggested GOP legislators aren’t being constructive in their criticism of how he’s handled the state’s budget woes.

Budget proposals in January will include the new teacher scholarship program - called “TeachersKan” - and initiatives to attract doctors and dental services to underserved rural areas, Brownback said. As for financing them, he said he’ll find the money despite a projected shortfall of more than $345 million in the state’s current budget and gaps in funding for existing programs totaling $1.1 billion through June 2019.

The governor also rejected criticism for not imposing budget cuts ahead of the legislative session, which starts in January. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said earlier this week that lawmakers are concerned Brownback is “looking for a ticket to D.C.,” or a position in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.

“It’d be more constructive if whoever in the Legislature proposes ideas to deal with the budget problems and starts working on it,” Brownback told The Associated Press.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. Brownback continues to blame slumps in agriculture and energy production for the state’s current budget problems.

Brownback, who won re-election in 2014 and is term-limited, said he wants “to take the long view” and focus on major problems.

He didn’t provide many details about the initiatives aimed at helping rural Kansas, other than to say the teacher scholarship program would be similar to one covering tuition and living expenses for University of Kansas medical students who agree to practice as doctors in underserved areas.

“Budgets are matters of priority and prioritizing,” Brownback said. “It’s a high priority.”

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said it has long supported such a scholarship program but would need to see the details - and the conditions placed on aspiring teachers. The teachers union has been critical of Republican leaders over education funding and for a 2014 law ending guaranteed tenure in public schools.

“Under normal circumstances, I might say, just jump up and down with, ‘Hooray! Somebody’s finally talking about this,’” Desetti said. “But this is a guy who has not been friendly to teachers.”

Brownback also faces increased skepticism from the Legislature. Wagle and other Republicans are frustrated that he’s not used the authority granted to him to balance the budget with spending cuts because it gives agencies less time to absorb reductions made to avert a shortfall on June 30.

“The governor’s lack of action only makes the necessary cuts deeper as we move further into the fiscal year,” she said in a statement, adding that after lawmakers reconvene, “we’ll get to work on picking up the pieces and govern.”

Even some GOP voters this year saw Brownback’s experiment in cutting income taxes as a disappointment, and more than 20 conservative Brownback allies lost their seats. Both moderate Republicans and Democrats regained some of the power they lost since Brownback won his first term in 2010.

Another sign of the Legislature’s shift closer to the political center came when Wagle announced committee chairmanships for next year, with a mix of moderates and conservatives. Moderate GOP Sen. Carolyn McGinn, of Sedgwick, will lead the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, replacing conservative Republican Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, a strong Brownback ally.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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