Schools and taxes – two politically-charged topics – are on a collision course in 2018, when Kansas lawmakers will have to find more money for public education during an election year.
Any sizeable funding increase raises the possibility lawmakers will turn to additional taxes to pay for it, but Senate Republican leaders immediatly ruled out tax increases.
“As promised, Senate Republicans remain committed to providing every Kansas student with an exceptional education, however, raising taxes to fund this unrealistic demand is not going to happen,” the senators said.
The Kansas Supreme Court on Monday ruled a new formula passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback earlier this year unconstitutional. The court set an April 30 deadline for lawmakers to make changes.
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The court’s opinion immediately placed school funding at the center of Kansas politics before the next legislative session, which begins in January.
Several lawmakers seemed to agree the ruling means more funding will be needed. But how much is unclear – as is the source of any potential increase.
“The next challenge is if more funding is required – if – how do we pass a tax bill to provide more funding? I don’t have the answer to that,” said Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican who chairs the House Tax Committee.
Lawmakers labored for weeks this spring to come up with the votes for a tax increase that could overcome Brownback’s veto. Johnson doesn’t think enough votes could be found to override another veto.
The new funding formula gave schools overall about $195 million more in this budget year and about $290 million more in the year after that. The formula was also designed to better target money to at-risk students.
But some had called for funding increases of upward of $800 million. The court in its opinion didn’t specify a funding level.
Senate President Susan Wagle, along with Vice President Jeff Longbine and Majority Leader Jim Denning, said the court should have waited a full school year before passing judgment.
“This ruling shows clear disrespect for the legislative process and puts the rest of state government and programs in jeopardy,” the senators said in a joint statement.
Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, predicted a tax debate but said she wasn’t looking forward to it.
Lynn said she’s come to the conclusion there will “never, ever be enough money,” to satisfy the court.
“And unless somebody else has a better idea, we’re going to be doing this for the rest of our legislative lives, the Legislature will be fighting this,” she said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said more resources will be needed. Yet he said it was too early to say whether lawmakers would look to raise taxes.
“The first two months of revenue have been very hopeful, and we’ve exceeded expectations,” said Ward, who is running for governor.
Revenue figures during the first three months of the fiscal year, which started in July, have been positive. During the current fiscal year, Kansas has collected $73 million more than anticipated, or about 5 percent above estimates.
September tax collections, which were released Monday, were $57 million, or 10 percent, above estimates.
Lawmakers will be able to answer the question of whether a tax increase might be needed after the state issues a new revenue forecast in November, Ward said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said lawmakers should begin working on a fix now. He called for the appointment of a special committee to begin working ahead of the January session start.
“Today’s decision once again validates what I have been saying throughout the school finance litigation. Kansas children are being left behind because Governor Brownback and Republican legislators have failed to pass an adequate and equitable school finance law,” Hensley said.
Brownback, who may resign as governor soon because he is expected to be confirmed as ambassador for international religious freedom, issued a short statement critical of the Supreme Court.
“Today’s court decision is yet another regrettable chapter in the never ending cycle of litigation over Kansas school funding. The court should not substitute its decision for that of the legislature,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who will become governor if Brownback leaves, did not issue a statement.
Contributing: Hunter Woodall of the Kansas City Star