Partisan division almost immediately reared its head as the Legislature kicked off its school finance special session Thursday, with a Republican-controlled panel blocking a Democratic attempt to introduce legislation.
The House Appropriations Committee rejected a request by Democrats to introduce their school finance plan. Lawmakers did allow introduction of a GOP-led proposal, and a similar plan was successfully introduced in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Blocking lawmakers of either party from introducing legislation is rare, and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jerry Henry, Atchison, expressed dismay.
“It’s set up a pretty difficult couple days when we can’t even get a bill introduced in committee,” Henry said.
The Democratic school finance plan, announced a few days ago, would provide $39 million in additional equity spending for schools. The Democrats would pay for the plan by drawing on an unused job creation fund and by taking money from an extraordinary needs fund set aside for districts who face sudden spikes in enrollment or large declines in property values.
Moderate Republicans were floating a strategy that hit the same job fund in the Kansas Department of Commerce, but left untouched the K-12 emergency account so districts in Johnson County and elsewhere that would lose state aid under a new school funding bill could later apply for some of that $15 million.
Separately, other GOP legislators were talking about a $13 million across-the-board cut to public schools, with that cash diverted to satisfy the court mandate on equitable aid to schools.
The purpose of the special session is to address a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found state funding for schools is inequitable between rich and poor districts. Lawmakers face a June 30 deadline set by the court to enact an equitable system.
The House and Senate judiciary committees were scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss options for amending the Kansas Constitution to inhibit state courts from issuing orders closing schools in relation to lawsuits brought to expand school aid.
It is unclear whether either chamber can muster the two-thirds majority required to place a proposed amendment on the November ballot.
“We’ll have a lot better idea tomorrow,” said Sen. Jeff King, the Independence Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she was skeptical a constitutional amendment would gain sufficient traction in the House even if adopted by the Senate.
No floor votes are expected Thursday, but committee hearings and partisan caucuses were expected to clarify options.
Few details of the GOP plans have been publicly disclosed, but multiple lawmakers have indicated the core of any proposal would boost equity spending by $38 million in the next fiscal year.
Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, and member of the House budget committee, said the Democrats likely will be allowed to introduce a school funding bill later in the day.
“It probably was not indicated early what they wanted. I think they’ll be given another opportunity,” Barker said.
As the House and Senate convened at 8 a.m., it became clear some members were missing. Nearly 20 legislators were absent from the House, while three senators didn’t show up.
While both chambers were starting the work day, the vehicle driven by House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, was left running in the Capitol’s underground parking garage with its headlights on.
“When you’re getting ready to leave the scene of a crime, you always have a car running to get out quickly,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.