Senators passed a school funding increase Wednesday that they hope will be enough for the Kansas Supreme Court. But some said they fear the measure will come up short.
The Senate approved House Bill 2186 in 23-16 vote. Several conservative Republicans joined most Democrats in voting against the plan. The House has passed its own bill, so negotiators must now reconcile the differences.
Lawmakers face a court-imposed June 30 deadline to enact a new formula. The court will determine whether the new formula funds schools adequately.
The Senate bill would increase school funding by about $230 million over current levels in its second year. The first-year increase would be about $160 million.
“We feel like we’ve satisfied the adequacy and the equity portion,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said. “Should the Supreme Court disagree with that, we will come back for special session and sort it out.”
Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita and a member of the Wichita school board, said the bill does not provide adequate funding. Children and school employees are “paying dearly” because not enough money is going toward schools, he said.
“Because this bill does not meet adequacy and we will need to come back and fix it, not only will that be expensive but we must bear the responsibility of playing chicken with the courts on school closings,” Rogers said.
Both bills would increase spending in the following years based on inflation.
Lawmakers will soon begin negotiating the differences in a conference committee. Both the House and Senate must pass identical versions of the bill to send it to Gov. Sam Brownback.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said the bill had been thoroughly vetted by senators. A Senate committee spent several days working through the plan, wading through dozens of amendments.
“I believe once we conference, we will have a very good product to present to the courts,” McGinn said.
In 2015, lawmakers scrapped the school funding formula that had been in place since the early 1990s and replaced it with a two-year block grant system. The block grant law expires June 30.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, helped spearhead the movement toward block grants. He criticized the new bill, saying that funding districts on a per-student basis doesn’t fully show how much state money goes toward education.
“We’re about to put the grand deception back in place,” Masterson said.
Senators rejected an amendment from Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, to set the increase at about $420 million in the second year, with a first-year increase of $220 million.
Hensley said his amendment, which was voted down 16-23, was an attempt to set funding at an adequate level. The overall bill is “riddled with flaws,” he said, and does not provide a constitutional level of funding.
“I think that both the House and Senate bills are inadequate, quite frankly,” Hensley said.
The proposal provides for all-day kindergarten. Like the House bill, the Senate plan aims to target funding at-risk students. The bill also sets a goal that 75 percent of all spending should go toward instruction.
Senators shot down an amendment that would have eliminated the all-day kindergarten provision.
“This gives people that opportunity. There’s many people who work and don’t have that opportunity to stay home with their child,” McGinn said in support of all-day kindergarten.
Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, who brought the amendment, said the change would have saved $63 million.
Change in property tax breaks
The Senate plan would prohibit cities from granting property tax breaks to companies for the amount of property tax that goes to education. The prohibition would apply to industrial revenue bonds and economic development exemptions.
Wichita has warned that the provision would harm economic development.
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, said the harm of eliminating the abatements outweighs the benefits. She offered an amendment to eliminate the provision.
The amendment failed on a voice vote.
“Eliminating this abatement is short sighted. We have to remember we’re competing with our neighboring states,” Pettey said.
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, spoke against the amendment. He said both private citizens and businesses should help pay for schools. Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, said lawmakers need to look at every abatement and tax credit.
“At some point … I hope we can stand up for the taxpayers in our districts and say enough’s enough,” Lynn said.
An earlier version of the bill would have imposed a surcharge on utility bills to generate revenue for schools. The surcharge was removed.
The House and Senate still must finish work to balance the budget. Kansas faces a projected budget shortfall of roughly $900 million over the next two years.
The $900 million figure doesn’t take into account any additional funding for schools.
Proposals raising taxes to generate additional revenue haven’t passed both chambers in recent weeks. The Senate approved a tax increase bill late Tuesday only to see the House reject it soon after that. Brownback vetoed a plan passed in February.