Topeka Senators spent Monday afternoon reviewing legislative progress thus far on school finance, looking for a combination of spending proposals that will bring swift conclusion to the 2006 session.
But after nearly four hours of discussion, the Senate Education Committee walked away with little more than three new proposals to go with three others the Senate rejected in late March. Legislators resume their session Wednesday after a three-week recess.
"We want to move ahead. We've got a job to do and we want to get it done," said Senate Education Chairwoman Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.
Legislators are under orders from the Kansas Supreme Court to increase school spending to satisfy a constitutional mandate to provide an adequate education for all students.
The order was handed down in 2005 in a lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in both the Dodge City and Salina school districts.
In 2005, legislators increased spending by $290 million, about 10 percent, to more than $3.1 billion annually.
The issue became a bit cloudy last week when Justice Lawton Nuss removed himself from future court proceedings after disclosing that he discussed school finance issues with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, a longtime acquaintance.
Nuss faces investigation by the Commission on Judicial Qualifications.
Legislators have their own questions, and a hearing is scheduled Tuesday in the Senate Elections and Local Government Committee. Others hope legislators don't get sidetracked.
"I certainly hope not, but the potential is there that it will become part of the discussion," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
Schodorf called the development "a big, big distraction" from the task of passing a school finance plan, but the topic wasn't breached during Monday's meeting.
"That's why I started out with a general discussion, and no one brought it up," she said.
Instead, the committee reviewed several plans and current budget projections for the state over the next three fiscal years.
Schodorf said the goal is to pass a plan that doesn't create a budget deficit by fiscal year 2009. Some proposals create a projected gap of up to $500 million.
None of the plans has a dedicated source of revenue to finance it, relying on growth in state revenues to pay the bill.
Revised revenue estimates made by economists and state officials on April 17 suggest that the state can afford a plan of about $400 million.
That includes $75 million already approved in the state budget. It also includes tax cuts for businesses.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wrote a letter to legislators Friday urging them to fund schools properly and approve tax cuts to move the economy forward.
The House passed a three-year, $633 million package in March, which was one of the three that senators rejected days later. House members were expected to return Wednesday and continue looking at school finance issues.
Senators came closest to passing a bill when they voted 20-20 on a four-year, $495 million plan offered by Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, who outlined it as part of his bid for the GOP nomination for governor.
"At this point in the process, we're so close to the end, we need people who will support this plan," Schodorf said.
"We have a great opportunity to meet the court's ruling and get out from under the court's thumb."