Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley chastised colleagues Tuesday for failing to make progress on a school finance plan in advance of a looming deadline, lecturing them on recent litigation history and urging them to come to grips with reality.
During spirited debate, lawmakers revealed an interest in negotiating with school attorneys and expressed ongoing frustration about the hammer wielded by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Then they rejected Hensley’s efforts to inject hundreds of millions of dollars into public schools.
“We have nothing to show,” Hensley said. “We’ve made no progress. We’ve waited around here, and now we’re basically a week and a half before the adjournment of the regular session.”
The Legislature, which is scheduled to begin a three-week absence at the end of next week, has until April 30 to submit a proposal to the high court that properly distributes enough money to address concerns with underperforming students.
Hensley’s first plan called for ramping up contributions by $200 million in each of the next three years, relying on a projected surplus in the state’s general fund.
When that didn’t work, he suggested the Senate adopt the cheapest option prescribed by Lori Taylor, the consultant hired by GOP leaders to deliver a school finance plan. Taylor offered a minimum investment of $451 million alongside recommendations to add $1.8 billion or $2 billion over the next five years.
Senators dismissed the two amendments by 28-10 and 26-10 votes.
Taylor’s report met immediate criticism and has been widely dismissed as a viable option. But Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said there is “movement” behind negotiations with school attorneys and urged lawmakers to bring them into the discussion before taking action.
“I feel that we absolutely need to, in our process, come up with a funding formula,” Baumgardner said. “We need to have that conversation with the plaintiffs.”
Taking aim at Hensley’s call to action, Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, said lawmakers have worked endlessly on school finance since he arrived at the Statehouse.
The supreme court is attempting to gerrymander the boundaries of school finance, expanding interpretation of constitutional language to include adequacy and equity requirements.
“I think the courts need to realize where they’re stepping over the lines, where they’re trying to redraw boundaries on school finance,” Pyle said. “We need to end this.”
He emphasized the constitutional authority of lawmakers to set funding levels by shouting “the Legislature” four times.
“And we never have stopped working on school finance,” Pyle said.
Hensley, who reminded senators they are 0-12 in recent litigation battles, responded with a history lesson dating to the 2005 special session that produced a court-approved plan. Funding was scrapped three years later amid a national economic downturn. Then, Hensley said, the Legislature welcomed a self-imposed financial crisis by adopting former Gov. Sam Brownback’s massive 2012 tax cuts.
Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, compared Hensley’s proposal to those tax cuts, saying the dollar amounts would be too much, too fast and would ultimately break the bank.
After Hensley’s efforts failed, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said the school funding debate applies pressure on senators “to actually address it in a much more timely fashion.”
“It’s not surprising that we weren’t able to garner any moderate Republican votes for this,” Kelly said. “I think probably what we need to do is get together and work out a compromise between base state aid and looking at something that’s a little more nuanced.”
Those talks, she said, likely will result in an effort to earmark money for mental health services and early learning programs and count the contributions toward the total amount of school funding.
Earlier in the day, senators dismissed an attempt by Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, to set aside funding for a new inspector general position that would oversee spending at public schools.
If there is a branch of state government that deserves enhanced scrutiny, Hensley argued, lawmakers should consider their yearly failures to adequately fund schools or provide an end-of-year cushion for the state budget.
Before the amendment died on a 27-12 vote, several lawmakers joined Masterson is supporting a position that reports to the state treasurer and could conduct a top-to-bottom review.
“There is no question we have the financial responsibility both to fund the districts and to be accountable to those who fund us, the taxpayers,” Masterson said.
Lawmakers also rejected by voice vote a request from Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, to set aside $30,000 to allow for a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said it would be premature to take action before hearing from the court.