TOPEKA — A joint meeting of House and Senate judiciary committees Thursday ahead of the Legislature’s special session on education finance will allow lawmakers and the public to dive into strategies to fix a funding flaw and block a court-ordered closure of schools.
Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the plan called for no more than two days of testimony and debate about immediate solutions to the Kansas Supreme Court ruling, pointing to a constitutional defect of Kansas’ public school finance law.
The goal is to forward recommendations to the Legislature’s budget committees, he said.
“To me,” King said, “the biggest part of this is we have to address the financial concerns the court had for next year.”
King said the joint committee would discuss placing a constitutional amendment on the November ballot striking the high court’s authority to mandate closure of the K-12 school system. The amendment would require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate before being put on ballots.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said movement to allocate more aid to schools in the upcoming year could be hampered by disagreement about the source of that cash.
“That’s where most of the debate will be in the Senate,” he said.
Hensley said legislators might attempt to soften opposition to a new financing bill by seeking expansion of state-financed scholarships, or vouchers, for students attending private schools.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee will wait until the June 23 launch of the special session to work on legislation addressing the Supreme Court’s order. The justices set a June 30 deadline to correct funding inequities, and noted possible closure of the education system.
More than one solution will be put before House budget committee members, said Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., the Republican chairman of the panel from Olathe.
“It’s a fluid situation,” Ryckman said. “We’ll have a bill and get input in a hearing. Whatever is best to ... make sure our schools will remain open.”
Gov. Sam Brownback, who characterized the Supreme Court’s ruling as “completely out of bounds,” called on the Legislature to convene in an extra session. The GOP governor endorsed allocation of approximately $38 million in state funding to narrow the gap between poor and wealthy school districts highlighted by the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers could be tempted to pass a $12 million hold-harmless provision protecting wealthy districts that would lose money in a deal resurrecting a discarded, but constitutional, formula for equalizing local property taxes paid to schools.
Complicating the budget math is a possible shortfall between projected revenue and expenditures in the fiscal year ending June 30.
The State Finance Council, comprised of Brownback and top legislative leaders, is expected to convene June 22 to close out the record $840 million certificate of indebtedness issued one year ago. These certificates allow the state to make use of idle cash in the treasury by issuing a document that performs like an IOU.
The certificate approach has been used annually in Kansas since 2000, but only six times previously.
In recent times, the state’s certificates ranged from $150 million in 2001 to $840 million last year. Size of certificates escalated to $775 million in recession-ravaged 2009, held at $700 million in 2010 and 2011, tumbled to $300 million by 2014 and surged to $675 million in 2015.
Next week, the council must decide on cash-flow needs before setting a limit on short-term internal borrowing for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Ryckman and Hensley indicated the new certificate target could resemble the $840 million from 2016.
“I’m sensing it will be close,” Ryckman said. “I think we all realize we have to pay for state services.”