Politics & Government

Can Kansas lawmakers afford $500 million more for schools without raising your taxes?

The Wichita Eagle

Can Kansas lawmakers spend $500 million more on public schools without raising your taxes or cutting spending elsewhere?

Yes, they can, if current projections turn out to be correct. But it’s a big if.

The House passed a school funding plan on Tuesday that would phase in a $500 million increase for K-12 education over five years. Lawmakers passed the bill 71-53 after rejecting it a day earlier.

Its fate is unclear after Senate Republican leaders said the Senate will not debate school finance until the Legislature passes a constitutional amendment that would restrict future lawsuits over funding.

The bill, HB 2445, is the first Republican-supported response to a Kansas Supreme Court decision last fall that lawmakers aren’t adequately funding schools. That opinion came as part of a lawsuit over funding brought by a group of school districts, including Wichita.

The Legislature has until the end of April to submit a plan for adequate funding to the court.

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Supporters of the House bill say the state budget can absorb the additional spending, assuming that revenue comes in as expected and that they don’t spend significantly more on other parts of government.

More-conservative Republicans say the current increase is unaffordable and will keep lawmakers from spending more on other parts of government that need it.

Under the plan passed by the House, Kansas would have about $60 million more in revenue than expenditures by 2022, according to one set of projections used by Republicans. The projections don't extend out the full five years of the plan, only the first four, leaving the effect of the final year unknown.

The state would start off with $367 million left over in 2019, but the amount would fall each year.

The projection is built on several assumptions: that Kansas funds its pension system at levels required by law, that it brings in more than $90 million each year from internet sales tax, and that federal tax changes boost revenue to the state by roughly $150 million each year.

“The trend is such, while it is declining in that ending balance, I think we can handle this situation with those revenue sources,” said Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican who chairs the House Tax Committee.

“Hopefully we’ll have enough time to assess: Has there been any growth in internet sales tax, continuing growth in income tax or other types of things where we could see that growth that would fund us through that time.”

An unexpected event, like a recession, could leave the state with less revenue and require cuts or tax increases.

Taxpayers can’t afford the new spending, said Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican.

The bill “throws more money at a system that has proven itself to be inefficient” and is not a responsible use of taxpayer dollars, Whitmer said. It is a “betrayal of their trust,” he said.

State officials and researchers will issue new forecasts later this month predicting how much revenue the state will receive in the coming months and years. Some expect the forecast to be more optimistic and increase the amount of revenue that is expected because of the economy’s continued strength and unexpected revenue from federal tax law changes.

On Monday, House Democrats offered an amendment to increase the size of the school funding plan by more than $200 million. Democrats said the state could have afforded the increase, but the proposal failed.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said $500 million is now likely the high watermark of what lawmakers may ultimately send to Gov. Jeff Colyer. A Senate plan under development would add significantly less than the House bill.

Ward responded to concerns about affordability by saying that legislative projections about spending and revenue are typically good for about three years but are less reliable the further out they’re extended.

“Every Legislature is going to have to make adjustments based on the economy of Kansas at the time and that’s just what we’ve done for all my time up here,” Ward said.

HB 2445 now heads to the Senate, where lawmakers may be less receptive to a $500 million increase.

A special Senate committee on school finance on Tuesday advanced a more modest plan that would add about $250 million over five years. And Senate Republican leaders said they won’t work on any school funding bill without passage of a constitutional amendment.

An amendment needs two-thirds support in both the House and Senate to pass. It would then go to a statewide vote. A House committee held a hearing Tuesday on a proposed amendment; the committee is expected to debate the bill on Wednesday.