Archive for Thursday, April 1, 2004

Senate examines competing plans for school finance

April 1, 2004


— Senators on Wednesday reviewed two House-passed school finance measures that differ broadly in how much additional money they would provide to education.

The Senate Education Committee held hearings on the measures after the chamber's leaders canceled debate on a bill containing the first year of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' three-year education plan, increasing sales and income taxes to raise $137 million for schools.

Senate Majority Leader Lana Oleen said Republican leaders were still trying to determine what might pass the chamber. Oleen, R-Manhattan, said she expects a debate Thursday or Friday and anticipates that a proposal will emerge.

Sebelius said it made sense for the Senate to consider ideas already approved by the House. Her full, three-year plan, phasing in a $304 million increase in school spending, has found little support in either chamber.

"I think that's a reasonable approach," Sebelius said of the Senate's strategy. "I want them to get something done before they leave permanently."

Legislators plan to recess Friday, then return April 28 to wrap up their business for the year.

One House proposal, backed by the chamber's Republican leaders, would send districts an additional $28 million of existing revenue for bilingual education, teacher mentoring and programs for children at risk of dropping out. It would also let 16 districts with a high cost of living increase their property taxes by a collective $23.5 million.

The other bill, drafted by Rep. Bill Kassebaum, R-Burdick, would increase spending by $155 million and would raise the state's 5.3 percent sales tax to 5.5 percent and place a 4.5 percent surcharge on individual income taxes.

In addition, the bill includes language, sought by Johnson County legislators, allowing local school boards to increase property taxes by up to $120 million with voter approval.

The legislative developments came a day before attorneys for the state and State Board of Education were required to file documents in Shawnee County District Court in response to a preliminary order issued in December declaring the state's school finance scheme unconstitutional.

State attorneys have filed an appeal with the Kansas Supreme Court, but Judge Terry Bullock still has asked for written arguments on the remedy he should impose.

Attorneys for the Dodge City and Salina school districts, who filed the case against the state in 1999, submitted their suggested remedy on March 1. They are seeking $1 billion in new state spending.

Kansas distributes about $2.6 billion in state aid to 302 school districts.

The Senate has rejected two previous school funding bills. A $65 million plan from GOP leaders, funded partly through increased taxes on alcohol, was defeated last week, while Sebelius' entire plan failed early in the session.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said members of both parties need to draft a bill. A bipartisan effort could yield a plan that would provide an additional $137 million to $155 million in additional money for schools.

"I think the Republican leadership itself is divided over how to proceed," said Hensley, D-Topeka.

But Senate Education Committee Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, said GOP leaders want to develop a plan Republicans can support before seeking Democratic help.

Umbarger said it would be difficult to approve a substantial tax increase for schools this session, then seek even higher taxes after the Kansas Supreme Court rules in the school finance lawsuit.

"That's the predicament I don't like," he said.

School finance is HB 2937 and HB 2940.

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