Wichita trial attorney Alan Rupe isn’t persuaded by the strategic spin of some Republicans irritated by the latest Kansas Supreme Court order to address constitutional flaws in state financing of public schools. A prominent GOP talking point entering the 2018 legislative session centers on potential of an 18 percent across-the-board spending cut if lawmakers are compelled to secure the $600 million some believe necessary to bring state education aid into compliance with the Kansas Constitution. Such savage cuts are possible, Republican legislative leaders said, because the Legislature has no appetite for back-to-back state tax increases.
Rupe, who represents school districts that convincingly argued in court state aid was both inadequate and inequitable, said the political objective of the GOP’s rhetoric was to pit K-12 education against advocates of other areas of state government.
State lawmakers attempted the tactic a decade ago in a previous school-finance dispute, Rupe said.
“It simply doesn’t work,” he said. “K-12 and higher education are not Republicans or Democrats. Pitting those groups against each other will not be successful, because they all have the same interest at heart.”
During a recent legislative committee hearing, however, the Kansas Board of Regents was asked how an 18 percent rollback would look at the state’s public colleges and universities.
“This system will look very different,” said Blake Flanders, the board’s president.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, raised the 18 percent predicament during a meeting with Johnson County Republicans. He said higher taxes wouldn’t be on the agenda when the session opens Jan. 8. It’s an election year and the 2017 Legislature imposed a controversial $1.2 billion, two-year expansion of the income tax to stabilize the overall budget.
If forced to make substantive cuts to come up with cash to satisfy the Supreme Court, he said, the pain would be spread around government.
“That’s 18 percent from your retirement. Eighteen percent from the highway patrol. Eighteen percent from your social services,” he said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, expressed intense opposition to a new round of tax hikes in context of the Supreme Court’s education ruling.
“Raising taxes to fund this unreasonable demand is not going to happen,” she said.
It’s possible the Supreme Court will allow new school aid to be phased in during a period of years. The state’s tax collections might exceed expectations to create a windfall of operating capital. The Legislature is sitting on an efficiency study with hundreds of millions of dollars in potential savings.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said fundamental budget decisions and a targeted response to the Supreme Court ought to be shaped through bipartisan dialogue. There’s a way to balance K-12 issues with legitimate requests of other agencies, he said.
“The Legislature has a constitutional duty to education,” Hensley said. “The answer isn’t irresponsible across-the-board budget cuts.”