Legislators vote for a half-billion funding boost

by Celia Llopis-Jepsen

& Jim McClean

The Free Press

Lawmakers may not know for months whether a deal to pump half a billion dollars into schools goes far enough to end seven years of court battles over whether the state shortchanges Kansas children.

If it falls short, the Kansas Supreme Court could call them back to Topeka this summer with yet another ultimatum to send even more money to local districts.

The deal to increase public education funding squeaked through with the bare minimum of votes amid desperate Statehouse gamesmanship over the weekend.

It will boost state aid to schools over the next five years, eventually adding more than half a billion dollars in annual funding.

In coming weeks, state lawyers will prepare briefs to the Kansas Supreme Court arguing this money is enough. Lawmakers, meanwhile, will wrangle over collecting online sales taxes to help cover the cost.

“We must keep our schools open,” Gov. Jeff Colyer told reporters at 12:30 a.m. Sunday after a 16-hour legislative day. “We must have a good response to the Supreme Court…. I believe that this bill—while it’s had a robust debate—has actually achieved those things.”

The night included a high-stakes game of legislative chicken between the House and conservatives in the Senate—all amid a backdrop of hundreds of teachers clad in red shirts who packed the galleries and hallways in a show of support for education funding.

“I look at this as an investment in our future,” said Karen Wilkerson, who teaches in the southwest Kansas town of Ulysses. “You invest in assets all the time for your business.”

Senate leaders wanted to add half as much money to schools as the House did. They fought the House’s plan to the bitter end, filibustering all the way through a midnight deadline that would kill the school finance bill and every single other piece of unfinished business from the 2018 legislative session.

“I could go on and on,” Republican Sen. Rick Wil­born said as he decried government spending with four minutes remaining on the clock. “As a matter of fact, I think I will.”

Just seconds before midnight, frustrated House members on the other side of the building took a procedural vote to keep the clock from running out on the session.

But because of how that extraordinary action toyed with legislative rules, it will complicate things in the days ahead. It gives Colyer the ability to veto bills without risk of legislative override.

“We were 90 seconds from melting down the entire session,” House Democratic leader Jim Ward said. “The Senate is a very dysfunctional body right now.”

Earlier in the day, the school finance bill had seemed on an easier path to victory. Colyer had endorsed it and Attorney General Derek Schmidt had admonished lawmakers to finish fast amid a looming court deadline.

“Each day of delay,” he wrote to them, “further damages the state’s ability to prepare a proper defense.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate Republican leader Jim Denning held closed-door talks. The House passed a compromise bill making minor concessions to the Senate’s own school funding plan. Proponents crossed their fingers as the bill headed to the Senate.

“I’m holding my breath,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, who helped craft the legislation, “and hoping they live up to their end of the bargain.”

But optimism faded when the Senate launched into a tax debate that led to hours upon hours of discussion on amendments and parliamentary procedure.

Even after winning enough votes for that bill—which contained tax breaks that could cost the state treasury nearly $500 million over five years—Senate leaders stalled.

“I’m here standing for all my constituents,” Senate President Susan Wagle said. “My teachers, my administrators, my aircraft workers, my CPAs, my health care workers, my hotel workers, the maids. Everybody. I’m here for my whole district. I’m just not here for all the phone calls that have come in today from the teachers.”

In October, the Kansas Supreme Court found the state wasn’t meeting its obligation to suitably fund education. It pointed, in part, to the quarter of public school students lagging behind grade level in math and reading.

Dozens of school boards have helped foot legal bills for the seven-year lawsuit. Two of the state’s largest, highest-poverty districts are among its formal plaintiffs: Wichita and Kansas City, Kan.

Their lawyers have argued the state should put at least $600 million into schools. Lawmakers opted to add less. They also phased the money over five years. That means they could face further challenges that inflation over that period will undermine the plan’s effect.

Meanwhile, groups such as the Kansas Chamber that think the courts have long overstepped their authority by meddling in school funding levels, will likely continue lobbying for a constitutional amendment to change that.

A proposal to do so passed the House judiciary committee earlier in the week.

House Democrat Pam Curtis, a member of that committee, said if lawmakers face another court order to increase school funding this summer, they could return to Topeka more eager to alter the constitution.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to see something like that give that momentum,” she said. “Because I don’t think then it’s considered in a very thoughtful manner.”

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