TOPEKA — An already tight state budget outlook and a closing deadline leave Kansas lawmakers with a daunting task of coming up with a solution to the state’s school finance woes, legislators said Monday.
An attorney for the state of Kansas lent new urgency to a legislative debate over school finance Monday by telling legislators they should have a funding solution developed in less than three months. Arthur Chalmers represents Kansas in an ongoing school finance lawsuit brought by several school districts, called Gannon.
Chalmers said lawmakers should reach a solution by March 1 to give the state’s attorneys time to develop their arguments. That is nearly two months ahead of the deadline the Kansas Supreme Court gave the Legislature when justices again ruled the state’s level of school funding unconstitutional in October.
Members of an interim legislative committee have begun gathering information to get a jump start on developing a school finance solution next session, but it is unclear how they might meet the court order. The state doesn’t have enough funds left over in coming budget years to spend more on schools, and some Republicans have vowed not to increase taxes. Cutting money from other departments in order to spend it on schools would devastate other state agencies.
“It’s a pretty daunting task to think that we’ve got to do this by March 1, but it’s our own state’s attorney that told us that, and so we ought to follow his advice,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
Hensley said the March 1 deadline means legislators need to have an idea of the overall budget picture and any changes to tax or revenue streams so they know what they can spend on schools. March 1 will be about halfway through the 2018 legislative session.
Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican and chairman of an interim committee tasked with studying the issue, said that meant there likely wasn’t time for legislators to commission a study telling them what they need to spend.
“Unfortunately, the guidance is rather murky,” Finch said.
Finch said the court wants the Legislature to “show its work” or make a clear case for how and why it devises its plan, but it didn’t give them enough time to do that. He said he thought the court had indicated it would favor analysis by the Kansas State Board of Education and the plaintiff’s attorneys that points toward adding another $600 million for schools.
To do that, Kansas would have to find more revenue or cut expenditures elsewhere — decisions likely to be unpopular.
Agency representatives told legislators on the committee that cutting their funding enough to boost school spending would be devastating. To add $600 million without additional revenue, legislators would have to cut other state agency spending by 18 percent.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said she thought it was too early to tell how legislators might comply with the court order.
“It will require very serious and thoughtful consideration of how we move the dials to get to the goal we need without completely decimating the rest of the state agencies,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said neither the 18 percent cut nor a tax increase would be palatable.