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Clock Ticking, Republicans Try, Fall Short On School Spending Bill

Scott Canon
Kansas News Service
Lawmakers are struggling to find consensus on a school spending plan.

Republicans in the Kansas House couldn’t win enough votes Monday to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. Conservatives in their own party thought it was too much money, Democrats said it was too little.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman said legislative leaders would keep working toward a compromise and could come back with a fresh proposal on Tuesday.

“Hopefully we have a different outcome tomorrow,” he said late Monday, but added that the bill as written is “all we can afford at this point in time.”

Republican and Democratic legislators on both sides of the aisle have signaled they want to avoid a tax hike after passing a politically painful $1.2 billion increase last year.

The bill that failed Monday by a 65-55 vote sought to end a school finance lawsuit by ratcheting up spending over the next five years. By the end of that period, annual school funding would be half a billion dollars higher than what was already budgeted for next school year.

Rep. Ed Trimmer tried but failed to tack on an extra $295 million to the ultimate annual increase to help schools deal with the effects of inflation. The Democrat said the bill, as it was designed, shortchanged schools on that front.

“I was trying to make it a true cost of living,” he said. “At least it was an improvement, getting us more on the right road.”

Democratic Minority Leader Jim Ward voted against the bill and said if Republicans want to bring in votes from his side of the aisle, they should consult with school districts suing the state about what would resolve the lawsuit.

The proposal to include more money to cover inflation appeared to take its cue from the districts pressing legal challenges on state funding. Their lawyers were listed on an informational sheet Democrats distributed during a caucus meeting earlier in the day.

An amendment from Republican Rep. Brenda Landwehr might have attracted more conservative votes, but at the cost of moderate ones.

Landwehr proposed allowing publicly funded vouchers for parents to send their children to private schools if the Kansas Supreme Court cuts off funding to public schools.

Rep. Chuck Weber, another Republican, said a policy like that could have won him over.

“We want to keep our kids going to school some place,” he said. “(Landwehr’s proposal) would have put pressure on the court to see how ludicrous it is to shut down our schools.”

The Kansas Supreme Court could block distribution of money to schools in the course of finding a funding law unconstitutional. The closest Kansas has come to that situation was in 2005.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans may pass their own plan out of committee on Tuesday. That bill is dwarfed by the House proposal that failed. It would add $50 to $60 million in funding for schools.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chair of the Senate school finance committee, said the idea is to address the court’s concerns by targeting extra money at early childhood education and other programs known to help students achieve.

Both the failed House bill and the Senate bill that could advance Tuesday propose funding increases that come on top of the $300 million approved by the Legislature last year. Most of that boost took effect this school year, and the final third will be phased in next school year.

The chairman of the House tax committee had said the House’s $500 million plan could be done without a tax hike. Yet a few months ago lawmakersbalked at, and were even angered by, a similar proposal from then-Gov. Sam Brownback on his way out of office.

Meanwhile, a proposal to amend the state constitution to prevent schools from battling out funding levels in court will have a hearing Tuesday.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt urged the House Judiciary Committee to let Kansans weigh in by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

After decades of sparring with the court over whether they’re providing “suitable” funding for public schools, Schmidt said, lawmakers appear as deeply divided as ever.

“I don’t think we’re closer to having a clear answer after a thousand plus pages (of studies and litigation) than we were when we started,” he told the committee.

Thebrand-new lobbying coalition behind the push announced their members Monday. They include the Kansas Chamber, Kansas Farm Bureau, the Kansas Contractors Association and others.

Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service contributed to this story.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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