Politics & Government

Kansas House OKs fix for $80 million error in school funding plan

Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, speaks with Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, left, as Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, looks at his phone. Kansas lawmakers debated a fix on Saturday to an $80 million error in the Legislature's school funding plan.
Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, speaks with Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, left, as Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, looks at his phone. Kansas lawmakers debated a fix on Saturday to an $80 million error in the Legislature's school funding plan. The Wichita Eagle

Kansas lawmakers moved closer to fixing an $80 million error in their school finance plan on Saturday but rejected a Democratic bid to add hundreds of millions more in new funding.

The House voted 92-27 to correct its plan to increase school funding by more than $500 million over five years. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Lawmakers voted down a Democratic plan that would have made the total increase more than $800 million over five years.

During a separate debate on taxes in the rare weekend session, multiple attempts to lower the sales tax rate on food failed.

The size of the school funding bill will play a key role as the Legislature argues before the Kansas Supreme Court that its plan adequately funds schools. The court said last fall that funding is inadequate under the state constitution.

If the court finds that lawmakers still aren’t properly funding education, it could order additional dollars or block current funding — effectively closing schools — until the Legislature comes up with an acceptable solution.

Gov. Jeff Colyer thanked the House for approving the fix. He said he hopes to sign the bill in the coming week, an indication he wants the Senate to pass the bill.

Supporters of the fix bill, SB 61, said it keeps the intent of the original bill while correcting the problem that would have dramatically lowered the amount of the increase schools are set to receive. Schools would have received $80 million less than anticipated in the first year alone.

“We’ve all been telling people back home that we would fix the bill when we got here, and the provisions of the bill we have before us today do exactly that,” said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka.

But some conservative Republicans said the fix subverts the legislative process by departing from what lawmakers originally passed. They also objected to the procedure used to advance the bill.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the House’s decision to include the fix in a Senate bill sets up a debate in the Senate where amendments won’t be allowed.

That “is the exact same tactic used to ram the flawed bill through the process earlier this month. The Senate should have the opportunity to fully debate SB 61, offer amendments and ‘fix the fix,’” Masterson said in a statement.

The $80 million error came about when lawmakers attempted to require school districts to set a minimum local option budget (LOB) based on local property taxes in an attempt to count that amount as state funding.

The funding plan passed by the Legislature required districts to set their LOB at 15 percent or higher of their overall amount of state aid. In practice, every district already has an LOB higher than 15 percent. A 15 percent LOB requirement for districts statewide amounts to about $510 million a year.

SB 61 fixes the $80 million error by taking the LOB requirement out of the school funding formula. But the bill still includes language saying it is the public policy of Kansas to require school districts to have LOBs of at least 15 percent and it urges the Supreme Court to take the LOB requirement into consideration.

Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, pushed for the LOB requirement in the original bill. To him, the legislation is a departure from what the Legislature originally passed and intended.

“So let’s have no misunderstanding. This is not a fix. This is a change of policy because people did not like the policy and they have the opportunity to change the policy after the cart is down the road,” Aurand told lawmakers Friday night.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to increase the level of school funding. An amendment from Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, would have raised the size of the increase from roughly $500 million to more than $800 million at the end of five years.

Lawmakers voted it down, 42-78. Rep. Les Osterman, R-Wichita, summed up the feelings of opponents.

“How do you plan to pay for this?” he asked.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the amendment would have been enough funding to end the litigation against the state over education spending. He said new revenue projections released earlier this month show Kansas could have afforded the additional funding.

“You can’t come here today and say we don’t have the money,” Ward said.

Sales tax measures fail

A trio of efforts to lower the state’s food sales tax failed to overcome rules challenges in the GOP-controlled Kansas House Saturday.

A 2015 change means that in Kansas, there’s a 6.5 percent state sales tax rate on grocery purchases. The change was signed into law by former Gov. Sam Brownback and has been routinely criticized during recent legislative sessions.

But lawmakers have been loath to find a way to pay for cut in the food sales tax rate as the state balances increased education funding with an ever fluid financial picture.

The first attempt came from Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton. He said his change would have lowered the food sales tax rate by 1 cent. Hodge said to pay for that, high earners would pay a higher income tax rate.

“You can basically lower sales tax on food for everybody in Kansas and only affect about 3,000 people in our state,” he said. “So you can lower the sales tax on food for 2.9 million people and only increase taxes on about 3,000 people."

The amendment was rejected on procedural grounds because it wasn't sufficiently similar to an underlying tax bill.

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, also tried to eliminate certain sales tax exemptions in an effort to lower the food sales tax by 1.1 percent.

But it also couldn't overcome a rules challenge. Whitmer also offered another amendment to repeal the 2015 sales tax increase, dropping the rate to 6.15 percent.

“It is high time we lowered taxes,” Whitmer said.

That attempt also failed.