School finance plan OK’d on one condition

House makes funding contingent on amendment limiting court power

? Kansas schools would get more funding under a bill advanced Wednesday in the House, but only if the Legislature adopts a constitutional amendment prohibiting the Kansas Supreme Court from ordering lawmakers to increase school funding.

House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said the proposal satisfied those who said the court overstepped its authority when it ordered the Legislature to increase school funding, and those who want more funds for education.

“What this bill does is it marries these two together,” Mays, R-Topeka, said after the House gave preliminary approval of the measure on a 63-55 vote.

But opponents of the measure said it was ill-advised and that lawmakers should focus on complying with the court order and going home.

The action came on the eighth day of a special legislative session with a Friday deadline from the Kansas Supreme Court to increase school funding.

A final House vote on the school finance plan is expected today, and then a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent the court from ordering lawmakers to make appropriations.

Portraits of Kansas Supreme Court judges line the wall inside the former Kansas Supreme Court chambers at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka. Kansas senators, including Marci Francisco, far right, D-Lawrence, have been meeting in the room.

Under the school finance proposal, it could not take effect unless the constitutional amendment is adopted, with the possibility of putting it before voters as early as mid-August.

A two-thirds majority – 84 votes in the 125-member House – is needed to pass a constitutional amendment. The Senate has already approved a similar provision.

Close vote expected

Mays said the House vote on the amendment would be close and that it needed Democratic votes. Republicans outnumber Democrats 83-42 in the House.

The amendment is sought by conservative Republicans who claim the court has no authority to tell the Legislature to increase school funding.

The school finance plan would provide $86 million in additional funds, plus another $33 million to be spent later in the year, and $20 million next year.

Opponents said the proposal would violate the court order because it failed to direct funds to programs for at-risk students and those who are learning English. Critics of the bill tried to substitute the legislation with one that was produced by a bipartisan group, which would have cost about $160 million, and which included some property tax relief.

“This is the plan that will meet the court order,” state Rep. Bruce Larkin, D-Baileyville, said of the alternative measure.

But conservatives said the more expensive plan would force a tax increase.

The bipartisan plan failed 59-65. State Reps. Barbara Ballard, and Paul Davis, both Democrats from Lawrence, and Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence, voted for the bill. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin, also supported it, and state Rep. Anthony Brown, R-Eudora, voted against it.

$3.9 million for Lawrence

Under the school finance plan that was accepted, and combined with a school funding increase approved earlier this year, the Lawrence school district would receive $3.9 million for the coming school year. Under a proposal approved by the Senate, the Lawrence district would receive $4.5 million.

Earlier in the day, Republicans, who hold significant majorities in the Legislature, pressured Democrats, saying there would be no additional school funding unless Democrats helped Republicans achieve the two-thirds majorities needed to pass the constitutional amendment.

“We’re being blackmailed,” said state Rep. Mike Peterson, D-Kansas City, Kan.

House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg said Republicans were “risking closing schools.”

‘Stabbed in the back’

The mood was a far cry from Tuesday when it appeared that moderate Republicans and Democrats were prepared to work together on a school finance plan.

But right off the bat Wednesday, Senate Republican leaders started calling on House Democrats to support the constitutional amendment. The Senate then adjourned for the day without doing anything.

“I feel absolutely stabbed in the back by Senate Republican leadership, and shame on them for doing it,” said state Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.

But Republicans said they were the ones making compromises.

“We have given and given and given and this is about it. This is as far as I go,” Mays said.

Mays said many conservative Republicans had compromised, going from supporting nothing extra for schools to $86 million. “There were people in my office who had tears in their eyes,” Mays said.

Meanwhile, advocates for disabled and elderly Kansans urged lawmakers to consider tax increases to fund schools and demonstrated outside the House chamber.

One proposal offered by the advocates would impose a soda tax of five cents per can, and a 1 percent surcharge on state personal income tax for incomes of more than $100,000.

They said they feared the Legislature would make cuts to social services. So far, the Senate has twice, in close votes, rejected a 2 percent budget cut.