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Colyer To Lawmakers On School Spending Bill: Fix It

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Kansas News Service
When lawmakers return to the Kansas Capitol late this month, they'll have to fix a school spending bill that offered less money to local districts than legislators intended.

Kansas Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer wants lawmakers to fix a costly mistake in the school finance bill passed after midnight on the last day of the regular session.

“It needs to be taken care of,” Colyer said Wednesday. “We’ll work with the Legislature on doing that.”

The error — a byproduct of confusion and deal-making in the session’s final hours early Sunday morning —makes re-engineering the state’s school finance formula more difficult than usual.

Facing a hard April 30 deadline for getting a new plan to the Kansas Supreme Court, legislative leaders left the heavy lifting on the issue to the final days of the regular session. That allowed little time to negotiate substantial differences between a House bill that called for an additional $534 million in funding and a Senate bill that proposed about half that amount.

With the clock ticking toward an adjournment, legislative leaders decided to go with the House bill. That forced a final-day showdown between lawmakers insisting it was more than the state could afford and those contending it was the least the state could spend and hope to satisfy the court.

In the end, the bill got just enough votes to pass both chambers. But frantic last-minute deal making led to a drafting error that reduced its funding by $80 million.

The mistake came in language added to the measure by Rep. Clay Aurand, a Belleville Republican, to allow local property taxes in the calculation of state aid.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican who helped write the House bill, said she didn’t spot the error until just before the House vote. By then, she said, it was too late to do anything without endangering the fragile coalition pushing for passage.

"I was told to relax. It would get fixed later." -- State Rep. Melissa Rooker

“I was told to relax,” Rooker said. “It would get fixed later.”

Apparently, later means when lawmakers return April 26 for a wrap-up session scheduled to last only eight days.

The short timeframe and the politics dividing lawmakers on the issue could make “fixing” the funding bill difficult, Rooker said.

“The logistics of getting to a vote on the floor for that will be tricky,” she said. “The timing is rough in terms of the April 30 deadline. But I don’t think there’s any question that we need to do it.”

Still, lawmakers opposed to the size of the funding increase see the mistake as an opportunity to continue to press their case.

“Gives us another chance to kill the bill,” Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, said in a tweet.

Meantime, lobbyists and lawyers representing school boards and teacher groups contend the bill, even in its original form, didn’t increase funding enough to satisfy the court.

“This probably isn’t enough,” said Mark Tallman, associate director of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

The increase is at the low end of what several studies — including a new one commissioned by Republican legislative leaders — indicated would be necessary to meet the court’s constitutional test, Tallman said. On top of that, he said, the plan distributes the money too slowly.

“The biggest weakness in the state’s case may be that because it’s phased in over five years,” he said. “Inflation is going to erode some of that.”

That argument is  “hard to dispute,” Rooker said, suggesting that the same amount of money phased in over three years might come closer to hitting the mark.

The problem with that, said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, is that an accelerated timetable would require lawmakers who have “absolutely no appetite for raising taxes” to do just that.

Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the school districts that sued the state over funding, said the court has made it clear previous rulings that the Legislature’s reluctance to raise taxes isn’t a valid defense.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always got,” Rupe told the Associated Press.

Jim McLean is managing director of 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 him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post. 

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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