Archive for Sunday, May 9, 2004

House rejects $82 million school finance plan

May 9, 2004


House members on Saturday rejected an $82 million proposal for borrowing transportation funds to benefit public schools, and legislators ended their session without approving additional education funding.

The House vote was 75-41 against the plan and came a few hours after senators approved it 26-10. The Legislature then adjourned on its 89th day.

"We just ran out of ideas," House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said after his chamber's vote. "The only people who have the right to point fingers are the children."

After the House's vote, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said legislators "couldn't summon the courage to meet the challenge." She also left open the possibility of calling a special legislative session later this year.

"Our children and our economy will pay a high price for the Legislature's failure to adequately fund our schools," Sebelius said in a statement.

Sebelius noted that a legal challenge to the state's school finance system is pending with the Kansas Supreme Court.

"Once the court has issued its order, I will decide whether to call the Legislature back to finish the job they've left undone," Sebelius said.

Sebelius and a bipartisan coalition in the House opposed the measure.

Under the plan, transportation funds set aside for the Kansas Highway Patrol and Division of Vehicles would be diverted to public schools in June 2005, at the end of the upcoming fiscal year.

The money would be replaced in July 2005 -- after the following fiscal year began. That accounting maneuver would be similar to a payday loan for an individual Kansan.

Before the vote, Sebelius issued a statement labeling the plan "the height of irresponsibility" because of its reliance on borrowing transportation funds.

However, Republican leaders said they were trying to help schools without increasing taxes.

"It's really sad to me that the House rejected the plan we laid on their table," said Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson. "It's my opinion they blew it."

The $82 million would have been the largest annual increase in state support for elementary and secondary education since the current school finance formula was enacted in 1992.

"I don't understand why people who voted for a tax increase refused to allow schools to have this very real, very spendable money," Kerr said.

At issue was whether road projects scheduled in the $13.9 billion transportation program would be affected. Republicans said they would not, but Transportation Secretary Deb Miller said the state would be "forced to re-evaluate future projects."

Kerr said that while the education package was not perfect, the transportation program was sound. He said it was "disgusting" for Miller to threaten to cancel projects.

But critics of the school-finance plan noted that in April, Sebelius signed a law allowing the state to issue bonds to shore up the transportation program and complete all scheduled projects on time.

"We can't meet our responsibility to the children of Kansas by breaking a promise renewed only a few weeks ago to fully fund the comprehensive transportation program," Sebelius said.

House Speaker Pro Tem John Ballou, R-Gardner, said the package's defeat sent a message that a coalition could stand firm on its principles of solving problems in education without creating other budget problems.

"It's the first time a group has stood up and said it's about policy and not politics," Ballou said.

Any new school funding would have been added to the $2.77 billion in state aid to school districts already approved for the 2004-05 school year.

Using the highway money, the state would have sent schools an extra $30 in general state aid per pupil, raising it to $3,893. The state also would have provided $28.9 million in block grants and more money for programs for at-risk, bilingual and special education.

Another issue was language in the plan defining a "suitable" education, directing districts to use state aid to teach such subjects as reading, writing, math and history.

Critics said the provision could force districts to eliminate counselors, nurses or other support staff linked to classroom instruction -- something its drafters denied.

In all, nearly two dozen school-finance proposals were put before the chambers since the Legislature convened Jan. 12, six weeks after a Shawnee County district judge declared that Kansas provides too little aid to public education and distributes the aid unfairly.

The state has appealed that decision to the Kansas Supreme Court -- another dynamic that weighed on legislators. Kerr said he anticipated the tax increase needed to comply with the court's ruling next year to be "substantial."


School finance is Conference Committee Report on HB 2027.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.