Politics & Government

Democrats introduce bills they say will fix Kansas school funding inequities

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Democrats introduced a pair of bills Friday that would add millions to school funding to fix the inequities identified by the Supreme Court last week.

But the bills are unlikely to find much traction with Republican leaders, who want time to explore options and who say no specific dollar amount will be required to solve the funding inequalities between school districts noted by the court.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, introduced a bill that would take $103.9 million from the state’s reserve funds to cover the cost of addressing inequalities in local option budgets. It also would lift a statute preventing the transfer of capital outlay funds so that $25.2 million could be used to cover inequalities in that area.

This would solve the inequity issue without the need for further court review, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Kansas Legislative Research Department. Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Atchinson, introduced an identical piece of legislation in the House Appropriations Committee.

“I think this gives people an opportunity to just do it clean, simple and quickly,” Kelly said.

Republican leaders did not embrace the bills.

“Are you going to affectionately name this the ‘get out the checkbook’ (bill)?” Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, joked when Kelly introduced the legislation.

The court left legislators with two other options. They can attempt to remedy inequity some other way by July 1 and hope their fix satisfies the court, or they can do nothing, in which case the court will enforce its own remedy.

Democrats say the Legislature should not take chances with a plan that requires further court review and instead should solve the problem now.

“I think it is the only option,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.

“I think the court was very clear in giving the Legislature the directive that this issue needs to be dealt with by July 1. And I think everyone should be fearful of what might happen if the Legislature and governor don’t act by then,” said Davis, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, referring to the fact the court could order a hold on local option budget funds if the Legislature does not act.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was reviewing the legislation as the House debated other matters.

“It’s just the easy way out of town. But it does drop our ending balance quite a bit,” Rhoades said. He said that money can be moved from other areas of the budget to address gaps between districts.

“There’s money we can shift around,” he said. He pointed to Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2015 budget proposals, which include partial restoration of cuts in higher-education funding, money for all-day kindergarten and an operating budget for the Department of Corrections. He said that budget could be tweaked to cover the disparities in education funding.

“It’s the new money that he’s asking us to spend – that’s the money we can look at potentially,” Rhoades said. He did not identify a specific area where he thinks extra money can be found, but he said his committee will begin working on the issue Tuesday.

He said the Legislature will meet its July 1 deadline.

Asked whether the governor was concerned about how his budget proposals might be affected by legislators shifting funds, Brownback’s office issued a statement: “The Governor will do what he has always done by prioritizing core functions of state government, such as education … while continuing to ensure tax payer dollars are being used as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Kelly said it was not the court’s intent for the Legislature to shift funding to cover the local option budgets and capital outlay disparities.

“We’re not solving any problems if we shift money. We’re creating problems if we shift money,” Kelly said.

She also said that some legislators do not “want to spend one more red cent on public education and will look for any way to avoid putting money into education” but that the court’s decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas was a clear instruction for the Legislature to do its constitutional duty.

Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, said the Democrats were acting hastily. Before the Legislature knows what extra money it can spend, it should know how much revenue it will pull in this year, he said. He advised that legislators should wait until revenue estimates are released in April before they support a specific fix.

“We really need to know what consensus revenues are going to do in April. We usually don’t finalize a budget bill or other budget bills until we know what the bottom number is,” DeGraaf said.

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