Politics & Government

Kansas senator cancels hearing on control-of-school-finance bill

Members of the Senate budget committee, including, Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, left, Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, committee chairman, and Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, at a hearing last year. (May 18, 2015)
Members of the Senate budget committee, including, Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, left, Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, committee chairman, and Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, at a hearing last year. (May 18, 2015) Associated Press

The Senate budget chairman canceled a hearing on a bill to give the governor more control over school finance Thursday, saying the conversation had been tainted after lawmakers were inundated with angry e-mails from educators.

SB 311 would have shifted school finance duties from the Kansas Department of Education, which answers to the state’s elected Board of Education, to the Kansas Department of Administration, which answers to Gov. Sam Brownback.

Opponents had called the bill a power grab.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the budget chairman, rejected that idea. But he canceled the hearing, saying that a productive conversation would be impossible because of the vitriol the legislation had inspired.

“That’s a mountain that we don’t need to climb this year,” he said.

He decried what he called attempts by education interest groups to spread misinformation and stir controversy.

“Somehow this is being presented as a secret bill. The truth is, it was introduced in May of 2015. It’s been available online for almost a year. So some secret,” Masterson said, referring to e-mails that have been sent to lawmakers about the bill.

Masterson said the governor’s office had not approached him about giving the bill a hearing, though he confirmed the Brownback administration had submitted supportive testimony.

“And this whole line that it was some big power grab, they had nothing to do with it,” Masterson said.

The governor’s office did not comment on the hearing’s cancellation. The office sent a statement to The Eagle on Wednesday touting the policy change.

Debate over transparency

Masterson said the bill would simply move the school finance division into a new agency, which he contended would allow for more transparency.

“The goal is to have consistent paycheck writing and check writing to the districts. We can’t even get consistent reporting,” Masterson told reporters. “The goal is for consistency, transparency, disclosure to the public. We just don’t have that right now.”

Asked what he thought impeded transparency at the Department of Education, Masterson replied that he was “not trying to project any nefarious intent.”

Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said some of the concerns voiced about the bill weren’t valid, but he questioned its purpose.

“We don’t think the bill is necessary or wise,” Tallman said, noting that Masterson had said the bill wouldn’t change the staff that handled school finance.

Tallman disputed that there is a lack of transparency with school finance. He also questioned how moving the staff to a new agency would improve transparency.

“He said at the end this is really about transparency and results. If nothing changes, I don’t think it really changes transparency,” Tallman said.

Education opposition

The Department of Education opposed the bill. Education Commissioner Randy Watson said the agency was concerned that separating money from “26 programs that are extremely complicated” would make coordination almost impossible, especially in special education and food service, where large sums of federal money are involved.

He said that leaving school finance in the Department of Education, which answers to the state board, keeps the system more accountable.

“The state board is elected, a 10-member board that can be thrown out. They oversee that budget and if at any time the patrons thought they weren’t doing their job, they could vote them out,” he said. “The Department of Administration, those are appointed people.”

Deena Horst, a member of the Board of Education who represents north-central Kansas, said she was glad to see the bill put on hold. If lawmakers believe “we’re not being transparent enough at the state Board of Education. … Hopefully we can address the concerns and that bill will not be needed any longer,” she said.

Source of bill not disclosed

One thing that helped inspire criticism of the bill was that it was introduced anonymously. Masterson said he did not know its author.

Kansas – unlike most states – allows lawmakers to introduce bills anonymously as committee bills. With many controversial bills, an author is not immediately apparent.

“Kansas is unique in that. But what you find is Kansas doesn’t like grandstanding,” Masterson said, contending that introducing a bill without a clear author was an act of humility.

Asked if this anonymity allowed for the spread of misinformation, Masterson said that was “only because someone is trying to find an individual to either promote or demonize. Why not have the issue rise or fall on its own merits?”

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said lawmakers can figure out a bill’s author “behind the scenes. We can always figure out who initiated the bill.” She would not say who she thought authored this bill, now that it appears dead for the session.

“I don’t think it’ll make much difference whether you know it or not, it’s whether it’s a good bill or a bad bill,” she said. “And this was a very bad bill that had no rationale other than a power grab.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3