TOPEKA — Uncertainty hangs over the Statehouse as the Legislature prepares for a special session that began today to respond to the Kansas Supreme Court but work through disputes over school funding and potential constitutional changes that would restrict the court’s power.
The House and Senate were expected to gavel in at 8 a.m., and budget committees were expected to meet shortly after to begin work to produce a plan that can move through the legislative process.
The clock will be ticking as a June 30 deadline imposed by the Supreme Court approaches. Justices want lawmakers to change the way the state distributes equity education funding because of disparities between rich and poor districts.
A $38 million injection of equity funding — with most going to property tax relief — would be enough to satisfy the court, analyses from the Kansas State Department of Education show. Yet legislators might battle over whether to appropriate an extra $12 million that would prevent any district losing funding in the equity shuffle.
Some lawmakers believe the court wouldn’t look favorably upon a so-called hold-harmless provision. Previous pronouncements from the court have expressed misgivings with hold-harmless.
Other lawmakers, often those representing affluent Johnson County school districts, are pushing for the additional funding to ensure no district sees a decrease in aid. Without hold-harmless, many of the state’s wealthiest districts will lose equity dollars.
The Legislature also might struggle over whether to advance any constitutional amendments. Some proposals call for the Supreme Court to be prohibited from ever closing schools, which lawmakers fear will happen if the June 30 deadline passes without action by the Legislature.
With that in mind, here is a look at the players and possible scenarios that will drive the session.
Rep. Ron Ryckman and Sen. Ty Masterson
The Republican lawmakers chair the House and Senate budget committees. They must handle the delicate task of moving a school finance plan through their committees.
The two men also are closely involved in negotiating a plan they hope will pass the Legislature. Masterson told the Associated Press on Wednesday he is optimistic about a deal on a $38 million proposal, while Ryckman added the plan likely would shift some existing education dollars to poorer districts.
Some legislators might be skeptical, however. The equity plan spearheaded by the two men this spring passed the Legislature but was rejected by the Supreme Court.
House and Senate
Any fledgling effort to modify the Kansas Constitution will need to survive these two committees before heading to the House or Senate floor — an outcome that is far from certain given the outcome of a two-day joint meeting of the committees last week.
Both panels met to hash out potential solutions to the school finance issue and possible constitutional changes. The conclave ended with little concrete action.
While the Senate committee voted to recommend to itself the introduction of a constitutional amendment when the special session begins, the House committee opted to take no action.
Some members want to set aside discussion on a possible amendment during the special session.
Though small in numbers, Democrats have been aggressive during the current school finance debate in attempting to get ahead of Republicans.
Democratic lawmakers put forward a $39 million school finance plan last week and said they would pay for it primarily by drawing from an unused jobs creation program and a fund for extraordinary needs facing districts.
Going into the session with a cohesive policy proposal, Democrats’ votes might be needed to pass legislation if Republicans deadlock over whether to include a hold-harmless provision.
Under the fastest scenario, the House and Senate budget committees will meet today with a mostly complete plan to address the school finance ruling. After hearings, the committees quickly could approve the plans without many changes, sending the bills to each chamber for debate.
To avoid a floor fight or divisive amendment process, lawmakers would need to be in general agreement over the funding sources to pay for the $38 million — and drop any demands for hold-harmless. Republicans haven’t yet publicly coalesced around how to pay the amount, though Gov. Sam Brownback has indicated budget cuts are probable.
If lawmakers don’t insist on holding floor votes on potential constitutional amendments, then the Legislature could pass an equity fix and end the session within two or three days.
If committees begin work without a clear direction from key lawmakers about how to pay for the equity legislation, the uncertainty could bog down the process.
A fight over whether to include a hold-harmless provision also would take time. Some lawmakers might threaten to vote against any plan if hold-harmless isn’t included.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, told the Associated Press there has been discussion about redirecting a small percentage of all districts’ general aid for operating expenditures to help poorer districts.
John Robb, an attorney representing the four districts suing the state, told the AP legislators shouldn’t redirect funds for general operations or emergency needs. He predicted the Supreme Court would “bounce” such a plan but would accept one boosting overall education funding by $38 million.
“They’re playing with fire,” Robb said. “They’re almost guaranteeing a shutdown and a second special session.”
A full Senate and House debate over a potential constitutional amendment also would take time and increase tensions. It is uncertain whether either chamber would have the votes to approve an amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority to pass and go to Kansas voters.
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, acknowledged Republicans in the House probably don’t have the votes to pass a constitutional amendment but said some members would like to see a debate.
“The Senate has the numbers, probably, to realistically look at a constitutional amendment. It’s tougher in the House,” Vickrey said.
If the initial plan that emerges from the committees is voted down in either the House or Senate, that will send lawmakers back to the drawing board.
At that point it is unknown what would need to happen for a bill to pass. Lawmakers might need to negotiate non-financial policy changes to education. During a previous dispute over school finance, for example, lawmakers targeted teacher due-process rights.
The session could run dangerously close to the June 30 deadline.