TOPEKA — An interim committee studying Kansas’ latest school finance woes began its work Monday with many questions and a set of possible education spending increases that would present a significant challenge to its budget.
Kansas has been in litigation over school finance since 2010 in the ongoing Gannon lawsuit. This spring, the Kansas Supreme Court again ruled K-12 funding unconstitutional in October and gave the state until April to come up with a solution and file a new brief in the case.
Putting more funds into schools would be a challenge for legislators who overrode Gov. Sam Brownback this spring to increase taxes, in part to put another $195 million and $292 million in schools in the next two years. Even with this year’s tax increase, the state will face budget shortfalls two years from now if it fully funds its public pension system and stops transferring money from highway budgets, which it has done in recent years.
To add money to schools, legislators would have to find it elsewhere in the budget or find a way to raise revenue, said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.
“It’s the perennial dilemma of state government,” Hineman said. “You’re always dealing with limited resources.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, too, said the Legislature would have to come up with a way to pay for any school funding increase. Senate Republican leaders already have vowed they won’t increase taxes again.
Hineman said the state still has a number of unmet needs it has to deal with despite the tax increase.
“Trying to overlay that with an additional several hundred million dollars for schools just makes the puzzle that much more difficult to solve,” Hineman said.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat and member of the interim committee, said he would have liked to see more money added to schools this year so the Legislature could have based its tax increase on what it needed.
“We didn’t do that, so now we are where we are, and it’s very, very difficult,” Trimmer said.
Trimmer said he thought there were other areas of state spending legislators could look at, like whether companies who get tax incentives for economic development use them effectively.
Other lawmakers have expressed an interest in amending the constitution, but any change to the Constitution might not meet the Supreme Court’s April deadline. A Constitutional amendment needs approval by two-thirds of legislators in the House and Senate to be placed on an election ballot for Kansas voters to approve.
Denning said Attorney General Derek Schmidt was working on language for such an amendment.
Hineman said he thought it should be part of the discussion but that House members didn’t have a draft they supported.
An amendment could limit school finance litigation by reducing or eliminating the court’s authority over school finance. The Legislature is required by constitution to provide a suitable education for children. That requirement is the basis for school finance lawsuits.
Trimmer said he doubted there were enough votes for the Legislature to pass an amendment.
“I think we just need to do what’s right — figure out a way to fund this,” Hineman said.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, announced Monday he would introduce legislation in 2018 that would prevent court-ordered school closures by giving exclusive authority to local school boards to close campuses. The Supreme Court previously has threatened to close schools if legislators don’t come up with funding.
“Parents deserve to have the decisions that impact their children and schools, made by their elected school boards not unelected judges,” Pyle said in a news release issued Monday.
According to the release, Pyle is considering a special election if his constitutional amendment passes the Legislature.
Pyle is not a member of the interim committee studying the court’s decision and working to come up with options for a response.
Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican and chair of the interim committee, said the committee would get more information about how to address the court decision at its next meeting. At its third and final meeting, he said, the committee will discuss ways to end the litigation over school finance.