Gov. Jeff Colyer praised the House’s bill expanding by about $525 million state investment in Kansas public schools Wednesday at the same time Senate Republican leaders insisted their lower-cost option was fiscally sound and structured to avoid a tax increase.
All sides of the equation expressed interest in securing approval by the House, Senate and Colyer of a deal capable of satisfying the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to correct constitutional inadequacies of the K-12 education finance system. A proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution limiting the Supreme Court’s reach on school litigation — approved by a House committee by a narrow margin late Wednesday — has complicated the work of lawmakers at the Capitol.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, demanded the Legislature’s passage of the constitutional amendment before Senate action on any school-finance bill. However, it isn’t clear the amendment can get the required two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate for it to be placed on a statewide ballot. That is 84 of 125 votes in the House and 27 of 40 votes in the Senate.
“Eighty-four votes is a high bar,” said House Minority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton. “That’s tough to attain. It’s that way for a reason. We don’t make changes in the constitution just on a whim.”
The Statehouse drama on education takes on urgency given the Legislature’s plan to adjourn Friday for three weeks and the Supreme Court’s deadline of April 30 to deliver a remedy.
“What is most important, overall, is that ... the Legislature pass a bill that addresses school finance,” Colyer said. “We’re happy to work with everyone on it, but we want this to get resolved quickly.”
The Republican governor endorsed development of the constitutional amendment designed to block litigation on public education finance, but he didn’t place action on that issue ahead of completing debate on the funding bill. He said the House bill, which spends about twice as much over five years at the Senate bill, “is a good place to start.”
After a meeting with Senate GOP members, Wagle said the Senate’s package of about $275 million was fiscally responsible. The bloated House plan would require the Legislature and Colyer to approve a tax hike, she said.
“I think there is no question that it will require a tax increase to fund it,” Wagle said. “Let’s make sure we have stability in our budget.”
However, Colyer pushed back and predicted during a news conference in the Capitol that the House’s steady five-year increase in funding to schools could be handled without a property, sales or income tax increase.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the House’s proposal on school finance would push the state budget into a deficit within two fiscal years.
The difficult political work during the 2017 session to escalate state income taxes to balance the budget and expand aid to public education will be undone if the 2018 Legislature spends too much too quickly, he said.
“If the House wants us to proceed with this, they need to send us over a package to pay for it as well. And, without that, we’re setting ourselves up for another tax increase, budget cut,” Denning said. “I would have never taken the tax vote to send us over the finish line if I knew that we would be sitting here having this conversation.”
Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican, said dire predictions of what the House school spending bill would do to the overall state budget amounted to “conjecture.” A spending profile developed by Senate GOP leadership suggests the state might be $250 million in the hole by July 2020.
“This profile is a guess,” Denning said. “My point is we don’t know what the hell we’re facing, but we’re being asked to spend $525 million.”
“What I do know is that we are under a court order,” Schmidt said. “And, time is running out.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, urged Denning to bring the Senate’s school funding bill to the floor Thursday regardless of other considerations.
“It’s time we dealt with the school finance issue in the Kansas Senate,” Hensley said.
Denning’s rebuttal: “I sure appreciate the advice.”