Kansas lawmakers face vexing school funding puzzle
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas lawmakers opened their annual session Monday facing a court mandate to boost spending on public schools but with little appetite to do what might be necessary to pay for it.
The Republican-controlled Legislature had short, mostly ceremonial afternoon meetings to start the traditional 90-day clock. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who is waiting to depart for an ambassador’s post, will give the annual State of the State address Tuesday evening and lay out budget proposals Wednesday.
The big question ahead of Brownback’s speech was what he will propose in response to the state Supreme Court’s ruling in October that Kansas’ total aid to its 286 school districts of about $4.3 billion a year is insufficient under the state constitution. Brownback promised to have a plan, but he hasn’t divulged any of its details.
“We are responsible for the core services of the entire state,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said during a news conference after lawmakers convened. “Especially when we’re dealing with the school finance issue, we have to balance out the resources we have available.”
Lawmakers also returned to Topeka with their leaders looking to overhaul a legislative policy against sexual harassment. It hasn’t been changed since 1994 and doesn’t require annual training for lawmakers or their employees. The Women’s Foundation, a Kansas City, Missouri, group that promotes gender equity, recommended such training last month as part of a broader overhaul of the policy.
Legislative leaders initiated a review after the ex-chief of staff for a former Democratic leader announced in October that a lawmaker propositioned her for sex in 2015 and that female college-student interns regularly served as after-hours designated drivers for intoxicated lawmakers in 2016.
Ryckman and other lawmakers said Monday that they expect to offer training for all 40 senators and 125 House members within a few weeks.
Many legislators, particularly Republicans, are frustrated because they approved a school funding law last year that phased in a $293 million aid increase over two years. Lawmakers raised income taxes by roughly $600 million a year to help pay for it and balance the state budget, overriding Brownback’s veto of a bill that rolled back past tax cuts he had championed.
The state Supreme Court also said that parts of the school finance law that pertain to how funds are distributed are unfair to poor school districts, but lawmakers expect to wrestle most with how much to increase spending. The court did not set a specific figure but hinted that it expects aid to rise by as much as $650 million a year.
“My legislators are repulsed at the thought of another tax increase,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, referring to her fellow Republican state senators. “It’s not going to happen.”
Democrats also hesitated to embrace additional taxes, with Sen. Pat Pettey of Kansas City, pinning some hopes on better-than-expected tax collections over the past seven months.
Legislators in both parties also are put off by the idea of big cuts in spending on universities, social services and public safety so that the dollars can be shifted to public schools.
And Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer said Monday that the Brownback administration’s budget proposals this week would include spending an additional $16.5 million over the next 18 months on child welfare services to address concerns in the system for helping abused and neglected children.
Brownback’s future creates an additional complication. He and legislators don’t know when he’ll resign, elevating Colyer to governor.
President Donald Trump nominated Brownback as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in July. But the U.S. Senate did not vote on his confirmation by the end of the year, requiring him to be nominated again. The delay has led to an awkward transition period.
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