By Celia Llopis-Jepsen and Stephen Koranda
The Kansas House has had its say on school finance — putting the ball in the Senate’s court. But Senate leaders say they won’t move forward on increasing K-12 funding to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court without a deal to prevent schools from suing again in the future.
The message from Senate President Susan Wagle and Republican Leader Jim Denning was loud and clear Tuesday: Kansas must amend the state constitution to put an end to the cycle of litigation over school funding.
“This madness has to stop,” Denning said. “We need a constitutional amendment to move forward.”
Earlier in the day, House Republicans and Democrats voted 71-53 to back a $500 million school funding plan, passing it on to the Senate.
Wagle fears that plan will again drive Kansas into a budget deficit and won't guarantee an end to the lawsuits.
“We just have to stop this train,” she said. “It would be a tragedy if we were to allow a bill to pass on the Senate floor that Kansans can’t afford.”
A different potential solution for financing k-12 education advanced from a Senate committee.
Kansas is facing an April 30 deadline to pass a school funding increase and defend the solution at the Kansas Supreme Court. Lawmakers agreed last spring to hike school funding by around $300 million, but failed to win the court over.
Both the House and Senate bills currently in play retain that $300 million. The House’s proposal would ratchet up funding further in increments of around $100 million a year over the next five years. The Senate’s would add just under $55 million in the first year, with similarly sized increments in the four years after that.
House Democratic Leader Jim Ward voted against the $500 million House plan, which he argues wasn’t enough to end the seven-year-old lawsuit against the state.
“It’s frustrating,” Ward said. “I don’t think anyone on our side of the aisle thinks we’ve fixed the problem or ended the litigation.”
Ward said the House and Senate are likely to meet somewhere in the middle, making an already bad situation worse.
Other legislative leaders also shied away from predicting how the two chambers will agree. House Speaker Ron Ryckman said his chamber has done its share for now.
“Our job was to send them a position,” he said.
Rep. Fred Patton, the Republican who carried the House’s bill, said he expects it won’t be easy. But both he and Ryckman remained hopeful that a solution would emerge before the end of the week when the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for a three-week break.
Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chair of the Senate school finance committee, said the gap in funding between the two bills isn’t worrisome because the two chambers often negotiate very different positions.
“What we’re going to have to focus on is what’s going to be best for our schools, what’s going to be best for our kids,” she said. “And what do we think best addresses the needs and concerns that have been expressed by the plaintiffs through the Supreme Court case?”
But the demand from Senate leaders that lawmakers vote on a constitutional amendment first means neither funding plan will proceed to a floor vote for now.
The top Democrat in the Senate, Anthony Hensley, called the decision to hold up consideration a “temper tantrum.”
“This tactic is not going to result in the passage of a constitutional amendment,” he said. “They are holding the school children of Kansas hostage by refusing to run a bill to adequately fund schools.”
If lawmakers don’t agree on a funding increase, the Kansas Supreme Court could shut down schools.
A House committee held a hearing late Tuesday on whether to let Kansans vote on a constitutional amendment to eliminate the judiciary’s authority to review school funding levels.
Richard Felts, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, which is part of a new lobbying coalition pushing for the amendment, said lawmakers should have the ultimate authority to decide how much to spend on schools.
Felts said that it worries farmers when the state’s tight finances put pressure on property taxes and squeeze other crucial public services and infrastructure.
“We know the importance of having a strong ... transportation system, a health department and the other services that we’ve all come to expect as Kansans,” he said.
Erin Gould, with Game On For Kansas Schools, said her group understands the frustration with the decades of litigation, but the courts should still be able to weigh in to make sure schools are getting the resources they need.
“We think it is wrong to change the rules of the game because you don’t like the score,” she said.
A vote on the proposal for a constitutional amendment is expected in the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. If advanced by the panel, it could move quickly to the full House. However, final passage requires topping a high bar. Constitutional amendments need a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers and the approval of voters on a statewide ballot.
Similar proposals to amend the constitution and avoid school funding fights have failed in the past.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service along with KCUR, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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