Efforts by Kansas Senate leaders to escape responsibility for a tax increase significantly complicated negotiations on a school finance package.
The Kansas Legislature may or may not have passed a school finance plan by the time today's newspaper lands on the porch, but whatever action is taken -- or not taken -- will be heavily influenced by some childish partisan behavior on the part of the Kansas Senate leadership.
Rather than passing a plan and entering into meaningful negotiations with the House, Senate leaders have spent most of their time rejecting plans presented by the House and issuing ultimatums about how the House needed to come up with a plan that was less costly. The clearly political strategy of the Senate seemed to be to cast its members in the role of grudgingly accepting a tax increase for education because it's the only way they could end the session and go home. That way senators running for re-election can tell constituents who opposed a tax increase that it was all the House's fault.
The Senate leadership had proposed a plan that would raise $66 million for education by delaying a $40 million payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and reducing the state's ending balances by $26 million. Although Senate leaders said this was their "last, best" offer on school finance, the plan was never voted on by the Senate and was abandoned Thursday because it wasn't gaining sufficient support.
In the meantime, House members passed their own bipartisan plan and have made a good faith effort to find middle ground with Senate negotiators. Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, and Rep. Bill Kassebaum, R-Burdick, were among those who led the consensus-building exercise that led to passage in the House of a $155 school finance package funded by sales tax and an income tax surcharge. The same House coalition presented a $128 million school finance plan as a compromise Thursday. The Senate agreed to continue talks on that plan, but one of the sticking points in the negotiations Friday morning reportedly was which chamber would consider the package first.
Sen. David Adkins, R-Leawood, characterized the situation as a "game of chicken" with each side waiting for the other to blink. The reality is that the end-of-session debate is much more about politics than about education. It's about legislators -- and especially state senators, apparently -- being able to defend their position to voters in the fall. Late Friday, after reducing the size of the package to $108 million, the Senate leadership agreed to be the first to debate the bill.
The end result of this debate may be a reasonable, affordable school finance plan. However, if either Gov. Kathleen Sebelius or Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock thinks otherwise, legislators could well find themselves back in Topeka this summer for a special session -- at additional cost to taxpayers. And, either way, Kansans have reason to be upset by the way this issue has played out this week.