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Archive for Sunday, June 26, 2005

House committee produces $106 million school plan

June 26, 2005

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— Gov. Kathleen Sebelius endorsed a $161 million school finance package approved by the Senate, but her announcement Saturday came as House Republicans drafted a smaller alternative.

Sebelius called the Senate plan "a responsible solution" to the Kansas Supreme Court's recent order requiring legislators to provide additional money to public schools.

"I call on the House to pass it and pass it quickly," she said during a Statehouse news conference. "I think the Senate has set a good example."

As Sebelius answered reporters' questions, the House Select Committee on School Finance endorsed a $106 million package.

The committee also agreed to introduce a bill that would boost school spending by $149.5 million, offered by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

It was the fourth day of a special session at the Statehouse, called by Sebelius, and six days until the Supreme Court's deadline for providing new education funds. It also was only 50 days before 446,000 students return to the classroom.

House members weren't necessarily looking for the $143 million in new funds the court demanded be delivered by July 1. Instead, they were seeking the magic number, 63 votes, in the 125-member chamber to make any plan happen.

But as for whether the House committee's plan has enough support to pass, Vice Chairman Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said, "We don't know."

House debate on the package was expected Sunday. It would increase base state aid that all school districts receive, boost special education spending and fund a grant program aimed at improving student achievement in elementary grades.

Democrats said it was an improvement but still lacked enough to satisfy most legislators and the court.

The Senate's $161 million package, approved Thursday, included $27 million in property tax relief. The plan endorsed by the House committee Saturday included no property tax relief.

The House' committee's plan also contains a provision that says none of the money can be spent until the court dismisses the school finance lawsuit that led to its latest ruling. If any provision is deemed unconstitutional by justices, the whole bill would be invalid.

"We think we've done enough. We think this is a good-faith effort," O'Neal said. "If they don't like this, we start over. They can't cherry pick pieces they like."

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said the urgency to pass a plan grows as each hour passes.

"We dealt with what we had to deal with. I don't know what will break the logjam across the way," Schmidt, R-Independence, said, referring to the House. "There's not much more the Senate can do."

The Senate plan would be funded by existing state revenues. Republican leaders were dealt a setback Friday when a gambling proposal was rejected, 22-17.

Rejecting gambling signaled that a figure lower than $161 million would be a more likely price tag for the ultimate school package, O'Neal said. But where that middle ground lies - if it exists - isn't clear.

After the gambling bill died, the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposed an across-the-board spending cut of more than 8 percent in state spending to shore up the state budget. House committees were mulling similar budget cuts.

Schmidt said it was unlikely the Senate would send a second, smaller package to the House to coax action.

"The $161 million is firm. There's not much interest in the Senate in bidding against ourselves in this process," he said.

Early Saturday night, a coalition of House Republicans from across the state gave details of their $149.5 million package, nicknamed "Mo-Jo" to reflect that their coalition includes members from Morton and Johnson counties.

Rep. Ward Loyd, R-Garden City, said the group of 18 to 25 Republicans was proposing the plan at some political risk but felt it was important to make a serious attempt to satisfy the court. He acknowledged that the plan lacked enough support to pass, but the group hopes to woo Democrats.

"We will be put on the chopping block for being here," said Rep. Bill Light, R-Rolla.

House Speaker Doug Mays said he was disappointed the group was siding with the governor "instead of sticking with fellow Republicans." He said he wouldn't reprimand the group for striking out on its own.

"It's not me they have answer to. It's something they have to settle with the rest of the caucus," said Mays, R-Topeka. "I'm not that kind of speaker."

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