By Allison Kite
The Topeka Capital-Journal
TOPEKA – When the Kansas Legislature returns Monday for the 2018 session, perhaps no issue will loom large as the need to pass a new K-12 school finance plan — and quickly.
The Supreme Court in October again ruled Kansas’ school finance plan unconstitutional in the ongoing Gannon lawsuit after legislators worked into the summer on the formula that added $195 million this year and would add $292 million next. Legislators overrode Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto to pass a tax increase and balance the state budget.
This year, they won’t have that much time.
Lawmakers have until April 30 to defend their plan in court briefs, but the state’s attorneys want to see a bill March 1, less than 60 days from now. They could have to add hundreds of millions to K-12 schools even as they grapple with an overcrowded child welfare system, aging prisons and limited mental health spending in need of funds.
“This is going to be a very difficult session,” Senate President Susan Wagle said. “$600 million is an awful lot of money, and the demands in this ruling are very far-reaching, and they’re putting the hammer down and saying do it now. It’s going to be, I believe, the most difficult session I’ve ever served in.”
Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said there was “no way” the state could afford the $600 million education advocates and attorneys want.
In their opinion, the justices said they would no longer be “complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”
They ruled the Legislature’s plan inadequate in its funding and inequitable in the way it distributes funds. Legislators said solving equity issues would be simpler than coming up with the money to meet adequacy.
Brownback said the Legislature added a significant amount of money last year, and he advocated aiming the money toward programs that target at-risk students. He said the normal process is to add more money to the formula and let it “divvy” the funds out.
“That doesn’t answer what the court has said,” Brownback said. “The money needs to get to where the problem is.”
Brownback is expected to address the court decision in his State of the State address release his proposed budget next week.
With less than 60 days until their attorneys want to see a bill pass, legislators will have to work quickly to come up with a number they don’t yet know. An interim committee gathered testimony and information, but didn’t seek to come up with a preliminary plan.
“I’m not sure March 1 is doable — it’s not, and that’s a quandary for everyone,” said Republican House Majority Leader Don Hineman, of Dighton.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said he wanted to see a committee-led process work on the plan, informed by a cost study the state commissioned, due March 15. The state allocated $485,000 to hire consultants and attorneys, including former Kansas Sen. Jeff King.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the cost study meant legislators would not meet the March 1 deadline the state’s attorneys hope for.
“It’s pretty apparent from the last LCC meeting that they’re not going to comply with that date,” Hensley said. “They’re looking more like March 15, and yet again, I don’t even know if that’s realistic. It depends on the Republican leadership in this Legislature. I don’t control the calendar. They do.”
Hensley’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, said he thought the new cost study was an effort to “low ball” the court and add less money.
Hensley advocated about another $270 million each year. Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, advocated adding between $300 and $600, added over the course of about three years.
The Kansas State Board of Education requested $893 million in its budget, another $600 million on top of last year’s additions. Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiff school districts, has called for that amount.
Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said his organization supported that number and sought stability in the funding schools get.
In its last opinion, the Supreme Court instructed legislators to show their work when they defend their school finance plan, but Mark Desetti, a lobbyist with the Kansas National Education Association, said he was concerned the cost study legislators commissioned would aim to justify the funds they already spent. Desetti said he would not object to a thorough cost study that evaluated what schools need.
“But if we’re going to spend $285,000 to $400,000 for somebody to give us the answer we want and not do the real job, I wonder about — is that a valuable use of money?” Desetti said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said the state’s older cost studies that would point legislators toward high levels of added funds aren’t calcuated to the new standards the court is looking for.
Where will the money come from?
Finding the money to solve Kansas’ school finance woes will be an uphill climb. Wagle ruled out another tax increase last week.
“My legislators are repulsed at the thought of another tax increase,” Wagle said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Fellow Democratic and Republican legislators have said they don’t think there’s an appetite for increasing taxes, but the state has limited funds or budget shortfalls in coming years if it plans to make full payments to its public employee retirement system and not use highway fund money in other parts of state government.
Denning said the new variables in the cost study would help inform how much funds legislators need to raise.
He said sales tax exemptions and budget efficiencies might be on the table to help free up funds.
Kelly said she thought the state may have enough funds to increase school funding and continue to make budget tweaks down the road because Kansas’ income tax receipts have been strong this fall.
Rupe called for another tax increase after Brownback’s cuts made budgets tight for several years.
“If the Legislature thinks they can accomplish this without new resources to replace the resources that were removed in the great experiment that failed, I think they’re in dream land,” Rupe said. “They really need to concentrate on additional resources, and to simply say that’s a non-starter is a way of saying we’re not going to comply.”
Amending the constitution
Meanwhile, some legislators have talked about amending the Constitution to either further specify the Legislature’s duty to fund schools or limit the court’s oversight.Desetti said he expected there to be significant “posturing” discussion about an amendment at the outset of the session.
“I’m expecting at some point cooler heads to prevail and people to get down to work to do what’s right,” Desetti said.
Ryckman said he supported discussing a constitutional amendment because other state services that affect children, like foster care and mental health services, needed room in the budget.
“We’re tasked with looking at the entire state and the needs and the core services of the entire state, not just what the plaintiffs’ attorneys want us to do,” Ryckman said.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office has already made strides to hold a statewide vote in April on a possible constitutional amendment.