Politics & Government

Moderates, Democrats could control school finance next legislative session

File photo
File photo File photo

Gov. Sam Brownback may find a Legislature controlled by moderates and Democrats next session when it is time to write a new school finance plan.

Brownback set a goal in his 2015 State of the State address to remake the state’s school finance system. He blasted the state’s old school finance formula, which had been enacted in 1992 under Democratic Gov. Joan Finney and crafted by Democrats and moderate Republicans, as overly complex and inefficient.

Brownback complained that the old formula was designed to lock in massive increases in spending unrelated to actual student populations or student achievement.

He aggressively pushed for its repeal and conservative Republicans agreed. They narrowly passed a bill in 2015 to repeal the school finance system and temporarily replace it with block grants to schools.

The plan was to return to the issue in 2017 and craft a new school finance formula, which would direct more money to the classroom and shed the perceived inefficiencies of the old formula.

The Legislature will still have to pass a new school finance formula next legislative session – regardless of how the Kansas Supreme Court rules in a pending lawsuit over the adequacy of school funding – when the block grants expire at the end of this fiscal year.

After Tuesday’s primary results, Brownback and his conservative allies will no longer have control over that process.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said that in repealing the school finance system without enacting a permanent plan to replace it, Brownback was “trying to jump across a 20 foot canyon” and that he ended up “only jumping 10 feet and now he’s falling.”

Legislative changes

Moderate challengers ousted eight conservative incumbents in the House and six in the Senate. Moderates also won primaries for several open seats in each chamber. The Democrats could gains seats in November as well.

If that happens, moderates and Democrats, who often collaborate on education issues, will likely have enough votes in both chambers of the Legislature next year to pass a funding plan.

Brownback’s spokeswoman, Eileen Hawley, said in an e-mail that the governor “looks forward to working with the 2017 legislature on a new school finance formula” when asked if the governor thought he would be able to accomplish his policy goals after Tuesday’s primary.

Many of the candidates who prevailed on Tuesday come from education backgrounds, noted Mark Desetti, the legislative director of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Bruce Givens, who ousted Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, is a long-time special education administrator, for example. Brenda Dietrich, who won an open House seat in Shawnee County, is the former superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn school district.

“They ran on school funding and fair taxes,” Desetti said. “…They understand the needs of schools. These are people who got involved because of schools.”

The union has donated heavily to the campaigns of both moderates and Democrats, and Desetti joked that he has “been smiling since about 11:30 Tuesday night.”

Lynn Rogers, a longtime member of the Wichita school board who is seeking a seat in the Kansas Senate as a Democrat, said he was “very encouraged” by Tuesday’s results, which he viewed as a referendum on school funding.

“People really know that as a state we’re broke, and they’ve got real concerns about the future and education in particular,” Rogers said. “They’re tired of Kansas being the butt of jokes, and they want some stability and some common sense again.”

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Rogers said. “I think the real question has always been: Do we have the political fortitude and courage to fund it? And that’s really where the push and shove is going to be.”

Securing more money for education, which is what many parent and teacher groups want, would almost certainly require a tax increase.

That could be difficult to pass even with a more moderate Legislature, but Beatty, the political scientist from Washburn University, said that it would be easier to justify raising taxes if lawmakers could tell their constituents that the money would be going toward increased funding for schools.

Beatty called the issues “a natural pairing” and predicted that lawmakers would end up repealing some or all of the tax policy changes Brownback ushered into law as part of his controversial “march to zero” for state income tax. Those changes included exempting more than 330,000 business owners from having to pay income tax on their profits.

It’s likely that at the end of eight years the policies that Brownback wanted to have firmly in place…will have come and gone.

Bob Beatty, Washburn University political scientist

“It’s likely that at the end of eight years the policies that Brownback wanted to have firmly in place…will have come and gone,” Beatty said.

More balance, better policy?

Brownback will still have the power to veto any education plan, but he may not have enough votes to a pass a plan of his own, which means that he’ll likely have to negotiate with moderates and Democrats.

“Government by fiat in Kansas is done,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. “We are going to have to have cooperation between three factions – conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats – in order to do anything to right the sinking ship of state that we’ve watched for the past six years.”

That would represent a major shift from the first six years of Brownback’s governorship. During his first year in office, he told Republicans that he wanted a budget bill passed without a single Democratic vote. Most of his major policy achievements were passed by party line votes.

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, said that “when you have a more balanced Legislature you have much better policy, and I think the people of Kansas realized that.”

Conservatives will still likely outnumber moderates within the Republican caucus. Republican leaders are already trying to bridge the gaps between the two factions.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has called all the Republican primary winners to offer support ahead of the general election, and state party leaders began discussing general election strategy with moderates as early as Tuesday night.

“There’s still a strong Republican majority,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, a moderate who has been outspoken on education issues. “But it’s clear that what we’re headed for is a much different political tone in the House, and it will take cross-factional cooperation in order to get most anything done.”

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, who intends to stand for speaker in the fall, said in an e-mail that it’s “clear that next session Republicans will need to come together to develop a new school finance formula on the values we share of local control and student-focused learning.”

Rooker said that she supported keeping the old formula but that “two years down the road it’s time to put something in place that represents a new beginning.”

Rooker said that Kansas should use elements from the old formula and also look at how other states are funding education. She also noted that many state audits have produced recommendations for how to make education funding more efficient.

“This is a terrific opportunity to do things better,” she said. “Our own internal auditing process has consistently brought forth ideas that generally are ignored, and it’s really a gold mine of information and ideas.”

Contributing: Suzanne Tobias of the Eagle

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3 

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