Archive for Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Senate proposes three-year, $415 million school finance package

February 9, 2005

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— A Senate committee has proposed a $415 million school funding package aimed at satisfying a Kansas Supreme Court order to increase funding for elementary and secondary education.

The plan would phase in the full increase over three years. It would increase spending in its first year by $125 million, using existing state revenues and tapping $80 million in cash reserves. The committee has identified no funding source for the second and third years of the plan.

The package, drafted mainly by Republicans on the Education Committee and outlined Tuesday, was the first proposal this session designed to meet an April 12 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court for improving school funding.

While the proposal would increase aid to all school districts, it also would provide new dollars for bilingual education, special education and programs for at-risk children, following suggestions offered by the court in its Jan. 3 order to the Legislature.

The plan would give districts authority to raise local property taxes to supplement the additional state dollars.

"I believe this plan will improve education for Kansas," said committee Chairwoman Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.

Last year, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius proposed increasing sales and income taxes to allow the state to phase in over three years a $310 million package increase in annual spending.

Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said the governor is pleased to see a Senate plan but added, "We all need to know about the funding strategy."

Kansas spends $2.7 billion in state aid to its 301 school districts. The proposed increase would be the largest infusion of state dollars since the current finance law was rewritten in 1992.

Under the plan, a $400-per-student increase in aid for all districts would be phased in over three years. Also, a district could use local property taxes to raise an amount equal to 30 percent of its state funds; the limit is now 25 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said raising the limit on local property taxes favors affluent districts and wins votes for any school finance plan.

"I understand the local option budget is a political factor because of Johnson County. But I believe the Supreme Court criticized us for making decisions based on politics," said Hensley, D-Topeka.

The plan also would resurrect an oversight committee -- created in 1992 but later abolished -- that would be charged with monitoring trends in education and recommending funding adjustments each year. Oversight would include annual audits of school spending.

House Republican leaders have said repeatedly they think legislators can address the Supreme Court's order without increasing taxes. In the Senate, President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, hasn't ruled out higher taxes to finance the second and third years of the Senate committee's plan.

Democrats have been skeptical that legislators can satisfy the court without raising taxes.

Hensley said relying on existing revenues would restrict future budget decisions and force legislators to abandon the education package or drastically cut other government programs if the economy sours.

House Speaker Doug Mays said the Senate plan dealt with issues that will be addressed in a House Education Committee plan, scheduled to be unveiled early next week.

He declined to give details about the House plan and said the legislators drafting it haven't settled on funding sources. But Mays said using existing state revenues and tapping cash reserves were still options. He didn't know how many years the House plan would cover.

"Because you never know what is going to happen to the economy, you can never budget beyond two years, but we're not ruling it out," Mays said.

Geary County Superintendent Ronald Walker, whose district includes Junction City and Fort Riley, said he expects several proposals to emerge following Tuesday's announcement.

"It's a good start to the conversation," Walker said.

In other action, proposals drafted in response to the case of a Newton couple accused of physically and sexually abusing mentally ill adults in their care received bipartisan legislative support.

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