Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach are split over a proposed $500 million funding increase for public schools as the two men seek to win over Republican voters.
Colyer backs the $500 million boost for schools in a bill passed by the House, breaking with Senate Republican leaders who say the amount is unaffordable.
“On a dollar figure, I think the House bill is a good place that could help solve this issue,” Colyer told reporters Wednesday.
Kobach endorses Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning's decision to halt work on school funding until the Legislature approves a constitutional amendment restricting future lawsuits over funding. His campaign for governor says the proposed increase would be unsustainable and lead to tax increases in the future.
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"I favor a constitutional amendment giving the elected representatives of Kansans the sole authority to make the best decisions about the future of our schools, and ultimately our taxes," Kobach said in a statement commending Wagle and Denning.
Colyer didn't directly answer whether he supports passage of a constitutional amendment as a precondition for a school funding bill. He hasn't endorsed any specific constitutional proposal, but suggested that if lawmakers want a constitutional amendment they should act quickly.
"I think that's a good thing that they can consider and going ahead and letting the House vote quickly on that or the Senate to vote quickly on that — let's get that done if they want to do that," Colyer said.
Kansas lawmakers face an April 30 deadline to tell the Kansas Supreme Court how it plans to adequately fund schools. The court said last fall that schools are inadequately funded in violation of the state constitution.
The bill passed by the House on Tuesday in a 71-53 vote would phase in a $500 million increase for K-12 education over five years. Another bill developed by a Senate committee would raise funding by about half that amount.
The Senate will consider neither bill until the Legislature passes a constitutional amendment, under the blockade announced by Wagle and Denning.
A constitutional amendment would take two-thirds support in the House and Senate to pass the Legislature. It would then go to a statewide vote. The governor cannot veto the proposal if it passes the Legislature.
Democrats and some moderate Republicans are opposed to a constitutional amendment, making the political math of passing an amendment difficult.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat who is running for governor, said lawmakers who support schools will not support the amendment.
"This is politics at its worst. Parents, teachers and kids count on us to do our jobs and fund their schools," Kelly said.
Wagle and Denning's decision has also roiled the Senate Republican caucus.
Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, didn’t join Wagle and Denning in calling for a halt to school funding action.
“My way or the highway is never a very good strategy, and it’s time for leaders to lead,” Longbine said.
Sen. Dinah Sykes, R-Lenexa, said on Facebook she was in “utter shock.”
"Ultimatums from leaders commanding actions are not democracy!" she wrote.
The school funding standoff figures to quickly become a significant issue in the governor's race. Colyer and Kobach are competing ahead of the August Republican primary, where voters tend to be more conservative than in the general election.
Also in the GOP primary: former state senator Jim Barnett and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer.
"This Republican primary is a conundrum for Jeff Colyer. It's clear for Jim Barnett, he's a moderate. It's clear for Kris Kobach, he's doubling down on the conservative side. So it's easy for them to take their stands," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka.
"Colyer is at this point trying to play both sides and it's an ongoing struggle."
Amid the growing deadlock over school funding, Colyer had been facing growing pressure to intervene in the situation. Some lawmakers said Colyer hasn't been very involved in the school funding debate.
"Governor who?" said Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka.
In February, Colyer provided a framework for a school finance response that included keeping schools open, a solution that "ends school finance lawsuits for good," investments that are sustainable and don't require tax increases, and improved educational outcomes.
Colyer said Wednesday he has met with a number of people about school finance, including lawmakers.
Denning said he had "not had a single conversation with the governor." Wagle also said she hasn't spoken to Colyer about school funding.
Lawmakers are set to begin their traditional April break at the end of the week. But the start of their vacation has been called into question as gridlock begins to develop on schools.
Colyer said lawmakers need to pass a school funding bill before they leave Topeka.
“They need to address this issue and I expect that bill to come very shortly to me,” he said.