Politics & Government

How do you fix an $80 million error? Kansas lawmakers are divided

Kansas lawmakers are divided over how to fix an $80 million error in a school funding bill passed earlier in April.
Kansas lawmakers are divided over how to fix an $80 million error in a school funding bill passed earlier in April. File photo

When Kansas lawmakers discovered an $80 million error in a major school funding bill after leaving on a break, many vowed to correct the problem when they returned.

Well, they're back, but are divided over how to fix the problem.

Lawmakers have put forward at least four competing plans. So far, they have not coalesced around any of them.

The Legislature must adjourn on May 4, meaning lawmakers are up against a hard deadline to act. Failing to find a solution could jeopardize the Legislature’s case when attorneys go before the Kansas Supreme Court to argue that the bill adequately funds public education and is constitutional.

The court could order more funding if it finds the bill is unconstitutional. At one extreme, it could even block funding —effectively closing schools — until the Legislature passes a constitutional plan.

Legislative leaders haven’t decided exactly when they’ll get to the school finance fix.

“I’m hoping sooner rather than later,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton.

The court has given attorneys an extra week to file briefs in the case — a move that allows the Legislature to use all the time before adjournment to pass a solution.

The school funding bill was intended to ramp up education spending by more than $500 million over five years. But the error means schools will get $80 million less than expected in the first year alone.

The size of the funding boost may affect the Supreme Court's decision in a years-long lawsuit over spending levels.

“Honestly, I expected us to take up something yesterday,” said Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park. “Given that the deadline has been pushed back, maybe it’s prudent to give it a couple days for the ideas to be out there, for people to be discussing them.”

Each proposed fix takes a different approach to the error, which came about when lawmakers attempted to require school districts set a minimum local option budget (LOB).

Districts can use a local option budget (LOB) to raise additional money through local property taxes. The LOB was originally intended to be used to pay for extra programs and purchases, like a shop class or new band uniforms.

But over the years, districts have come to use LOB money for core educational purposes.

Under current law, districts can set their local option budget at up to 33 percent of the amount that they receive from the state, but they are not required to.

The funding plan passed by the Legislature will require districts to set their LOB at 15 percent or higher. In practice, every district already has an LOB higher than 15 percent.

Requiring districts to set a minimum LOB is designed to allow the Legislature to take credit for that portion of funding. A 15 percent LOB requirement for districts statewide amounts to about $510 million a year.

One plan would fix the $80 million error but keep all other provisions in the bill — including the LOB requirement. Another plan would fix the error by stripping out the LOB requirement.

Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, is a leading proponent of the 15 percent LOB requirement. He wants the Legislature to fix the error, but keep the requirement. He said it was the Legislature’s intent to include the requirement.

“It seems like what we normally do around here if there’s an error,” Aurand said.

Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, has proposed a compromise bill. It would fix the $80 million error, and would include language saying it is the public policy of Kansas to require school districts to have LOBs of at least 15 percent.

But in his bill, the requirement would not be included in the state’s school funding formula.

“That’s where the error happened. It complicates things because you have to adjust everything by 15 percent and it’s hard for people to understand,” Patton said.

Finally, House Democrats have put forward their own plan that removes the LOB requirement, but also adds more funding for schools.

Democrats have attempted repeatedly to add more funding for schools during legislative debates. Many predict the $500 million increase will not satisfy the court and that lawmakers will be back in a special session this summer to add more money.

“I think the ultimate value (of the Democratic bill) is we solve the problem now and hopefully end the lawsuit and move on so we can take care of other core services,” Parker said.

Others say lawmakers need to remain focused on fixing the error without reopening the school funding debate. The original school funding bill passed with the minimum number of votes needed.

Some lawmakers who voted for the school funding bill would vote no if additional funding is added, said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway. She said she supports additional funding, but noted the Legislature is in a unique situation in needing to approve a fix.

“We can want what we want, but completing the job is our highest priority right now,” Rooker said.

The competing fix bills are sitting in the House Appropriations Committee. Neither Hineman nor the committee chairman, Rep. Troy Waymaster, could say whether the committee plans to debate the bills or if a fix will be brought directly to the House floor.

Lawmakers appear likely to work into the weekend, raising the possibility of action on school funding on Saturday or Sunday.