Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers approve $500 million for schools backed by Gov. Colyer

As the Kansas Legislature sought a compromise over school funding, teachers rallied at the Capitol.

Congressional candidate Paul Davis showed support for the teachers who rallied at the Kansas Capitol on Saturday.
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Congressional candidate Paul Davis showed support for the teachers who rallied at the Kansas Capitol on Saturday.

They barely had the votes.

The Kansas Legislature approved a $500 million increase for the state’s K-12 education system early Sunday with the exact number of votes needed in both chambers. Lawmakers hope the bill will end long-running school finance litigation.

It next heads to Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, who has signaled his support for the spending boost.

"We're very gratified that the House and the Senate were able to pass it," Colyer said.

The Senate approved the bill 21-19 after midnight; the House passed it 63-56 in the afternoon. The Senate vote came after hours of drama, angry speeches and bitterness that further showed the divisions within the Republican caucus.

"I think there's enough good things in this bill that we can fix in the long run, and fix it right," said Sen. Bruce Givens, R-El Dorado, as he voted in favor of the legislation.

Few seemed overwhelmingly happy with the bill sent to Colyer’s desk roughly 20 minutes after midnight.

"I think it represents a good-faith effort by the Kansas Legislature to come up with an adequate level of funding to meet the Gannon case," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, referring to the school finance court case.

Said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka: "The schools will be able to use this money and do a lot of good things for the kids of Kansas."

Conservatives in the Senate largely opposed the bill, saying that just giving more money wasn’t enough.

“We have failed our schools, we have failed our parents, we have failed our kids,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, warning that the court issues would not end with this legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning even compared the school finance bill to former Gov. Sam Brownback’s often-criticized tax cuts.

"This is going too deep too quick," said Denning, R-Overland Park.

“This sucks us dry on all the other budget needs,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said.

The Senate earlier in the week had approved a plan that would add about $250 million over five years and fund additional programs. The House had passed a bill with $500 million in new funding.

Formal negotiations between the House and Senate bore little fruit Friday, leading House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and Denning to hold their own discussions. The compromise kept the House’s funding increase of $500 million but added some of the targeted funding wanted by the Senate.

Some Democrats said the school funding plan didn’t provide enough new money, while conservative Republicans said it is unaffordable and would require tax increases in coming years.

“Folks, we are writing checks the people of Kansas cannot afford to pay. We have got to stop this insanity," said Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita.

The bill would phase in the funding increase over five years. It includes new money for special education and for more students to take a version of the ACT exam.

During debate on Saturday, the House rejected a Democratic amendment to add an additional $186 million. Some Democrats predict that without that amount, the plan may not pass muster with the Supreme Court.

“Our job is not to add a little bit more money to education and pat ourselves on the back. … Our job is to constitutionally fund schools," said Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park.

Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, told her fellow lawmakers: “Shame on us.”

“This is a consequence because we have not faced our responsibility. We are adults. We know better,” she said.

Saturday afternoon, dozens of teachers, clad in red shirts, riled up and ready to cheer for what they felt was right, gathered outside the Senate.

"It was a pure rollercoaster," said Cynthia Tracy, a seventh-grade science teacher from Wellington. "Frustrating, but ended well."

The Supreme Court’s decision last fall that funding is inadequate came as part of a years-long lawsuit over school funding. Lawmakers have passed several school funding bills over the past few years as part of the lawsuit.

Supporters of the funding deal say they can pay for the plan without tax increases, even as some projections show the state running a deficit beginning four years from now.

"With strong fiscal leadership, $500 million is affordable and sustainable without a tax increase on Kansas families," Colyer said in a statement Saturday.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said revenue exists to pay for the plan for the first three years. He suggested lawmakers can make adjustments later to ensure the plan remains affordable in the years after.

“We have said from day one that we can do this without a tax increase. … After one, we’re going to have to address it to make sure the revenue streams — after two, we’re going to address it,” Ward said.

Lawmakers will know more about the state’s financial situation later this month when state officials and researchers issue new forecasts of how much revenue Kansas will bring in over the coming months and years.

The Supreme Court had given lawmakers until April 30 to submit a plan to adequately fund schools, but the Legislature typically takes much of the month off. Lawmakers were set to begin their break Saturday but pushed it back to work on school funding.

“There’s assumptions that we won’t know the reality of … until we get back from break. However, the court didn’t give us that luxury,” Ryckman said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Friday urged lawmakers to act quickly. He said each additional day without a plan further damages his office’s ability to prepare to defend whatever plan the Legislature eventually passes.

After the Supreme Court receives the Legislature’s plan, the court will hold oral arguments and eventually rule on whether the plan is constitutional.

Ahead of the school funding debate, senators first took up a tax bill that would potentially lower future revenue coming into the state. The bill would allow Kansans to itemize their taxes at the state level, even if they don’t itemize at the federal level. Right now, taxpayers must itemize at the federal level to itemize with the state.

The Senate advanced the bill after an hours-long debate.

The tax bill would lower revenue coming into the state by several hundred million dollars over the next five years, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue. Reducing future revenue would make it more difficult for the state to pay for the school funding increase proposed in the House plan.

Democrats opposed the measure. The tax bill would lower revenue by $494 million over five years, Hensley said, which far outweighs a slimmed-down education plan the Senate passed just days ago.

"I think that we should be putting the children of Kansas basically first," Hensley said.

Conservatives in the Senate strongly pushed for the bill to pass, saying that a "windfall" of money to the state tied to the federal tax measures should be returned to Kansas taxpayers.

"This is how majority parties become minority parties," Wagle said. "By not giving back an unexpected windfall, by spending more money than you have in the bank and then passing another tax increase so that you can pay for it."

How they voted

Here’s how south-central Kansas and Kansas City-area lawmakers voted on a compromise school funding plan contained in Sub SB 423. The bill passed the House 63-56 and the Senate 21-19.

South-central Kansas

Republicans voting yes: Leo Delperdang, Roger Elliott, Daniel Hawkins, Brenda Landwehr, Wichita; Steven Becker, Buhler; Ed Berger, Hutchinson; Bruce Givens, Mary Martha Good, El Dorado; Kyle Hoffman, Coldwater; Steve Huebert, Valley Center; Anita Judd-Jenkins, Arkansas City; Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick

Republicans voting no: Susan Humphries, Les Osterman, Mike Petersen, Gene Suellentrop, Susan Wagle, Chuck Weber, John Whitmer, Wichita; Larry Alley, Winfield; Emil Bergquist, Park City; Doug Blex, Independence; Jesse Burris, Mulvane; Blake Carpenter, Derby; Dan Kerschen, Garden Plain; Les Mason, McPherson; Ty Masterson, Andover; Joe Seiwert, Pretty Prairie; Jack Thimesch, Cunningham; Richard Wilborn, McPherson

Republicans absent: Don Schroeder, Hesston; Kristey Williams, Augusta

Democrocrats voting yes: Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Lynn Rogers, Wichita; Ed Trimmer, Winfield

Democrats voting no: Elizabeth Bishop, John Carmichael, Gail Finney, Henry Helgerson, K.C. Ohaebosim, Tom Sawyer, Ponka-We Victors, Jim Ward, Brandon Whipple, Wichita; Steven Crum, Haysville; Tim Hodge, North Newton; Jason Probst, Hutchinson

Kansas City area

Republicans voting yes: Shelee Brim, Shawnee; Stephanie Clayton, Overland Park; Tom Cox, Shawnee; Erin Davis, Olathe; Willie Dove, Bonner Springs; Linda Gallagher, Lenexa; Jan Kessinger, Overland Park; Joy Koesten, Leawood; Patty Markley, Overland Park; Abraham Rafie, Overland Park; Melissa Rooker, Fairway; Ron Ryckman, Olathe; John Skubal, Overland Park; Dinah Sykes, Lenexa; Sean Tarwater, Stilwell

Republicans voting no: Molly Baumgardner, Louisburg; Barbara Bollier, Mission Hills; Jim Denning, Overland Park; Keith Esau, Olathe; Steve Fitzgerald, Leavenworth; Julia Lynn, Olathe; Robert Olson, Olathe; Mary Pilcher-Cook, Shawnee; Randy Powell, Olathe; John Resman, Olathe; William Sutton, Gardner

Republicans absent: Scott Schwab, Olathe; Frank Trimboli, Olathe

Democrats voting yes: David Haley, Kansas City, Kan.; Cindy Holscher, Overland Park; Pat Pettey, Kansas City, Kan.

Democrats voting no: Tom Burroughs, Kansas City, Kan.; Pam Curtis, Kansas City, Kan.; Broderick Henderson, Kansas City, Kan.; Nancy Lusk, Overland Park; Cindy Neighbor, Shawnee; Jarrod Ousley, Merriam; Brett Parker, Overland Park; Louis Ruiz, Kansas City, Kan.; Jerry Stogsdill, Prairie Village; Valdenia Winn, Kansas City, Kan.; Kathy Wolfe Moore, Kansas City, Kan.

Democrats absent: Stan Frownfelter, Kansas City, Kan.