Politics & Government

$197 million at risk for Kansas schools as Legislature faces 111th day of session

House majority leader Representative Jene Vickrey (center left) talks with Kansas House Taxation Committee Chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park before the house reconvened on Tuesday afternoon. Also pictured is Speaker’s Office communications director, Rachel Whitten.
House majority leader Representative Jene Vickrey (center left) talks with Kansas House Taxation Committee Chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park before the house reconvened on Tuesday afternoon. Also pictured is Speaker’s Office communications director, Rachel Whitten. The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA — The Wichita school district would lose $22 million if the Kansas Legislature does not pass a tax plan and the state cuts spending instead.

Lawmakers are struggling to fill a $400 million budget deficit. The Senate approved a tax plan Sunday that includes policy provisions that have drawn criticism. House leaders said Tuesday that the chamber would be unveiling an alternative plan this week.

If the Legislature fails to pass a package of tax increases, a 6.2 percent across-the-board spending cut would be needed, budget director Shawn Sullivan told 27 House members at a private meeting Monday.

That would mean a $197 million cut to public schools, which take up about half of the state’s budget. The Kansas Department of Education released estimates Tuesday about how that would affect each district in the next budget year.

“It’s a big number,” said Diane Gjerstad, who handles government relations for the Wichita school district, the state’s largest. “That would be extremely serious. … We would have to look at the entire operations of the school district.”

She noted that the Legislature already passed a bill cutting funding from previously announced levels for the current school year and largely keeping it flat for the next two years.

In Wichita’s suburbs, Goddard, Maize, Derby, Haysville and Andover schools would each lose more than $2 million.

The Senate plan contains provisions unrelated to the state’s tax policy, including putting public dollars toward private school scholarships and placing restrictions on property tax increases by county and city governments.

The plan largely protects a business tax exemption. Gov. Sam Brownback has said he will veto any plan that rolls back one of his signature policies, a 2012 law that eliminated income tax for certain business owners.

House crafting its own plan

House members had scheduled a debate on the bill Monday, but canceled that.

Asked Tuesday morning if he thought the House could find 63 votes, the minimum needed to pass the Senate plan, Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick smiled and replied, “We’re working on it.”

But Tuesday evening, House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said the House would instead craft its own plan. Both plans would include a sales tax increase and the elimination of most income tax deductions. Vickrey said House leaders were trying to build consensus before moving forward with a vote.

“We can’t push this too fast. … We need everyone to be pulling this wagon together,” he said.

Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, one of the GOP holdouts, said House members were being pressured by the Brownback administration to support the Senate plan despite their concerns about some of its policies.

“Does it cause me to pause? Of course it does. This is gutting Kansas for political gain,” said Hutton, who has repeatedly called for business owners to be put back on income tax rolls. “Am I going to let somebody float by in the river drowning?”

“They’re expecting us to cave because we care. … We care more about our citizens. And we don’t want to see them hurt in the short term,” he said.

The governor’s office would not respond to Hutton’s comments.

Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, offered some details on the timeline if the state does proceed with the automatic budget cuts, known as allotments.

“If we get to a point where we have a budget that is not fully funded by a tax package and projections are below zero, the Governor would have to send out allotment notifications,” she said. “There is a 30-day period between announcement of an allotment and when any allotment would become effective.”

Hutton noted later Tuesday that across-the-board cuts to state spending could also trigger cuts to federal aid. The federal government matches the state contribution for many government programs, so a lower state contribution would mean less federal aid, he said.

No consensus

Rep. Kent Thomspon, R-Iola, called some of the policy provisions deal-breakers, such as the one that says city and county governments can’t take in more property taxes without a vote. He said this would cause budget problems for local governments.

“I was a county commissioner for 12 years and I operated part of that time under a tax lid imposed by the state and it’s very problematic,” Thompson said. “Local officials, they’re responsible for their people just like we are here.”

The policy was added to the Senate’s bill, HB 2109, without receiving a hearing during the legislative session,

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate’s budget chairman, compared the situation in the House to a scene in an action movie when multiple characters have guns drawn on each other.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, explaining that the Republican Party is split into at least four factions on tax policy.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said he can support the Senate’s bill and has encouraged his colleagues to do the same.

“I’ve told the group that I meet with that if the Senate conservatives come up with 21 votes for something, we should probably support that,” Rhoades said. “Do I like everything in that? No.”

However, some House members appear emboldened as the standoff continues. Asked if he would support the Senate plan, Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, offered a two-word reply: “No way.”

Wednesday will be the 111th day of the session, the longest in the state’s history.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.