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Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

Lawmakers inch toward compromise on school finance

May 2, 2004

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— Legislators made scant progress Saturday toward compromise on increasing state aid to school districts, with each chamber decisively rejecting the other's approach.

On a 104-16 vote, the House turned down a Senate-passed bill that would add $72 million -- without raising taxes -- to the $2.77 billion already budgeted for elementary and secondary education.

House members criticized the Senate measure's reliance on using cash reserves and postponing some payments into the public pension fund next year to free up money for schools.

The Senate held fast to its no-new-taxes position, voting 35-5 against a House-passed bill that would send districts an additional $155 million through increases in the state's sales and income taxes.

"We have a lot of entrenched positions. I'm surprised there's no middle ground," said House Education Chairwoman Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center.

Negotiators from the two chambers met periodically during the day, then recessed in the evening until the Legislature's wrapup session resumes Monday.

The negotiators said they were working to areas of agreement on what should be in a school finance plan. Those include increasing money for programs targeting poor and minority students at risk of academic failure and bilingual programs for students with limited English skills.

Senate Republicans derided the House plan as potentially harmful to the Kansas economy.

"This tax increase is intolerable," said Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, contending the price would be thousands of jobs. "We must grow our way out of this problem because we can't tax our way out of it, just like we can't gamble our way out of it."

But House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said Saturday's votes indicated that relying on the state's limited resources to help school districts was unpopular.

"I think it means we've got a ways to go," Mays said. "Those wanting to raise taxes are pretty much in the driver's seat."

Adopted late Friday, the Senate's one-year proposal would be funded with $32 million from the state's cash reserves and $40 million from delaying three months of state payments into the public employee pension fund until late in 2005. No authority is given to school boards to raise local property taxes.

The House plan would increase the state's 5.3 percent sales tax to 5.4 percent and impose a 4.5 percent surcharge on personal income taxes, raising $155 million. It would also authorize school districts to raise local property taxes by a collective $120 million.

Rep. Bill Kassebaum, architect of the House plan, said the coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans who passed it in that chamber were firm in their support. He echoed other legislators who said the Senate approach would hurt already tight state finances.

"It doesn't solve any of the problems in education and it creates another problem with the budget," said Kassebaum, R-Burdick.

Senate Education Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, said some legislators were unwilling to vote for any new money for schools.

"If that were to take place, those who drew their lines in the sand will realize the consequences of not being willing to compromise," Umbarger said.

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