Senate Republican leadership wrangled enough support Thursday to narrowly pass a bill expanding state aid to public education after denouncing House leadership for not taking a vote on a constitutional amendment targeting the Kansas Supreme Court.
The Senate’s plan to phase in a $275 million increase to address constitutional flaws in the state’s education funding system was approved 21-18, but the package was far different than legislation approved by the House to add $525 million for schools over the next five years.
GOP leaders urged Republicans to support the lower figure as a starting point for negotiations with the House, which could take place as early as Friday afternoon. Sen. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, said she voted for the Senate plan because she prefers the way it distributes funding and is confident the total will grow.
“What I wanted was our policy and their money, but you don’t get everything you want,” Bollier said.
Democrats are concerned the Senate plan, even after negotiations with the House, won’t survive scrutiny by the state’s high court, which has given lawmakers an April 30 deadline to present a plan that is adequate and equitable.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, complained about a closed-door gathering Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, ordered with at least 10 GOP committee leaders before the start of debate. Wagle appoints those leadership posts.
“I think it was very unfortunate that the Senate leadership had to basically use strong-arm tactics to get this bill out of the Senate,” Hensley said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, took responsibility for delaying debate on the Senate’s plan and apologized to Republican senators for causing them grief. During that two-day wait, the House decided not to call a vote on a resolution that would rewrite the Kansas Constitution to give the Legislature unilateral authority on school funding.
“I know I lost a lot of credibility,” Denning said. “I’ll try to get that back.”
Denning and Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, cautioned colleagues against giving up any ground before passing the Senate bill and entering talks to iron out differences with the House.
Schools are seeking an initial $700 million increase in funding, followed by a $400 million boost and eight years of $100 million additions.
Baumgardner, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, told fellow Republicans to pass her bill and haggle over the dollars later.
“I know that it’s hall talk: ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t vote for this bill. We can’t have this come out from the Senate because it’s too low,’ ” Baumgardner said. “We’ve also had discussion on ‘the House version is too high.’ What all of us do know is the House has established their position. We’re establishing our position.”
Don’t walk into negotiations with the same position, Denning said, “because then you’ve given up something that you know the folks on the other side of the table really want.”
A GOP consultant’s stunning $2 billion recommendation last month “monetized the moonshot,” Denning said, by trying to meet a goal of graduating 95 percent of students. Denning revealed Thursday that Lisa Taylor has provided a revised recommendation showing the Senate plan is $53 million above the level needed to meet a goal of 91 percent.
Hensley and Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, were skeptical of the unseen revision from Taylor.
“Denning has proven time and time again you really can’t put a lot of credence in what he says,” Holland said. “The facts he brings to the table are suspect a lot of the time. We’ll see where it goes from here.”
Topeka Republican Sen. Vicki Schmidt, who leads several committees and a task force, was among those Wagle called into her office before the debate. Schmidt joined seven other Republicans in voting no.
Schmidt questioned whether the Senate plan is adequate to satisfy the state’s high court. GOP leaders earmarked $100,000 to hire former Sen. Jeff King to represent the Senate in school finance matters, and Schmidt demanded to know why he wasn’t available to answer questions.
“We’re getting ready to take a huge vote on an education plan,” Schmidt said. “Why isn’t our attorney advising the rest of us in this caucus about where this plan is, what this plan does? What are we paying him for?”
Thursday’s action followed two days of stalling as Denning and Wagle waited for the House to pass the constitutional amendment. The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday advanced a resolution that would put the issues before voters in November, but House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, decided not to bring the resolution before the full House this week. The chamber has 85 Republicans, and 84 votes are needed to pass the resolution.
In a joint statement, Denning and Wagle said Ryckman wasted their time. In an interview, Ryckman said he had no response to the statement.
“I’m appreciative that they’re working their school bill,” he said.
Denning said he thought he was doing the speaker a favor.
“I just want to let everybody know that it was my decision,” Denning said. “Sen. Wagle went along with me. I was willing to take the pressure and the grief. I didn’t realize it would spill over to the other senators who got the awful email and so forth. So I apologize for that.”