House and Senate Democratic leaders offered a school finance proposal Friday that would reallocate $39.2 million in state funding to resolve the immediate constitutional problem with state aid to Kansas public schools.
The minority party’s recommendations emerged while legislative committees worked elsewhere in the Capitol on strategy for responding at a special session of the Legislature to the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling that an element of state aid to districts violates the Kansas Constitution.
The Supreme Court instructed lawmakers to correct by June 30 a flaw in state aid designed to equalize local-option revenue drawn from property taxes. Lawmakers return to Topeka next Thursday.
“The Legislature has been given not one, not two, but three opportunities by the courts to find a solution, but has failed each time,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
He said during a news conference the Legislature should address the equity issue identified by the Supreme Court by allocating $15.2 million from a set-aside account for extraordinary needs of school districts, $13 million from an unused job creation program in the Kansas Department of Commerce, $7.3 million by freezing funding to virtual public schools at 2015 levels, $3 million in idle federal funding for needy families and $750,000 by repealing a tax credit for private school scholarships.
“We worked hard to identify revenue sources within the budget to fund our school finance equity proposal,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat on the Senate’s budget committee. “However, our options are very limited due to many years of mismanaging the state’s budget.”
Eileen Hawley, a spokeswoman for Brownback, said the governor didn’t support the proposal outlined by Democrats. She said digging into the commerce department’s job fund would “negatively impact an upcoming announcement creating a large number of new jobs.”
“It would endanger several thousand Kansas jobs by taking aim at the job creation fund, money with existing binding obligations to businesses that have created or retained jobs like Amazon, Goodyear and an aviation company in Wichita,” she said.
Hawley said Republican legislators were constructing a solution to the Supreme Court’s school funding order. However, meetings on Thursday and Friday of the House and Senate judiciary committees failed to produce a financing recommendation.
The Democratic leadership didn’t endorse a hold-harmless provision that would place $11.7 million into a funding bill to prevent districts from losing money if the state reverted to an old local-option budget formula. If included in the Legislature’s package, Hensley said, it would need to incorporate a clause permitting the Supreme Court to find the hold-harmless unconstitutional without derailing the larger funding correction.
House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, denounced talk among some Republicans about placing a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would make it impossible for the state’s courts to issue an order in the future leading to closure of public schools serving 460,000 students. Earlier, the Supreme Court noted in a document that noncompliance with the equity issue could prompt statewide closure.
“Kansans have always made education a priority, which is why it was put in the Kansas Constitution in the first place,” he said. “They want the Legislature to do its job and appropriate the funding for schools, not make changes to the judicial branch of our government.”
Republicans and Democrats have argued the Supreme Court indicated a hold-harmless provision had constitutional weaknesses, but business and school groups in Johnson County endorsed the supplemental aid.