Archive for Wednesday, February 22, 2006

House panel to unveil school finance bill today

February 22, 2006

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— With the Legislature halfway through its 2006 session, House members plan to unveil a school finance bill that would phase in a funding increase of about $500 million over three years.

The plan, expected to be introduced Thursday by the House Select Committee on School Finance, will use ideas from committee hearings and negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. However, legislators still weren't giving details Tuesday night, such as the exact amount of money or how it would be parceled out.

House Speaker Doug Mays said the bill was to be introduced Wednesday, but was delayed a day because of technical issues related to specifics in the bill. Mays, R-Topeka, said the plan still will be "in the ballpark of $500 million."

"There were glitches in the numbers. We couldn't get it done by tomorrow. We've got some details to take care of. It wasn't anything major, but we didn't want to introduce the bill like that," Mays told The Associated Press on Tuesday night.

Mays said he still hoped to have the bill, which doesn't require a tax increase, ready for House debate the week of March 6.

Asked if there were enough votes to pass it, he said, "There's a lot of money involved here. We've got a lot of selling to do. I don't expect the vote to be overwhelming."

Unlike 2005, when lawmakers were under the Kansas Supreme Court's April deadline to increase school spending, legislators have taken a more deliberate approach this session, including bringing Sebelius in on private talks from the beginning.

Nicole Corcoran, spokeswoman for Sebelius, declined to give specifics of the school plan, but described the talks as "very productive."

"She very much looks forward to a multiyear funding plan, without a tax increase, coming out of those efforts," Corcoran said.

Last year, legislators increased school spending by $290 million to more than $3 billion. Despite signing off on the increase after a special session last summer, justices said education funding was still short of meeting a constitutional mandate and suggested it would order more money absent legislative action in 2006.

A report Jan. 9 by the Legislative Division of Post Audit concluded that the state must spend as much as $470 million more to meet a constitutional mandate to provide what the court sees as a suitable education to every child.

While legislators have generally agreed with the report, they have disagreed with recommendations for more spending on poor, urban districts and less money on small, rural schools.

"We're trying not to penalize any part of the state," said Mays, adding the plan would be skewed toward helping at-risk students. "Anybody with at-risk students would benefit."

House Select Committee on School Finance Chairwoman Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center, said the plan would include giving the state's 300 districts more flexibility in how they spend their dollars.

Attorney Alan Rupe, who represents parents and administrators from Dodge City and Salina who sued the state over school funding in 1999, said he would prefer open talks on school finance. Rupe also dislikes a multiyear plan and questioned whether it will keep up with student needs.

"First and foremost is the history of the Legislature, with promises, promises and unfulfilled actions," Rupe said. "Everything that is being discussed falls short of what the court has ordered, what the Legislature determined to be the cost of an adequate education."

He said legislators seemed to be engaged in "election-year politics" in cutting taxes for businesses instead of focusing on the pressing needs of the education system. The House has approved a bill containing a modified version of Sebelius' proposal to phase out property taxes on business machinery and equipment.

Rupe said he is ready to go back to court if legislators fall short of what the justices have required.

"We've already got exhibit stickers on the audit," Rupe said, referring to the January study.

Senators are working on their own plan, which Education Committee Chairwoman Jean Schodorf said would be introduced next week. Schodorf, R-Wichita, said the package would reflect discussions between legislative leaders and the governor, while being different from the House package.

Thus far, only one plan has been made public: a four-year, $400 million package offered by Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, who included the package among his proposals in his bid for the GOP nomination for governor.

The plan has been introduced as a bill but hasn't had a hearing. It would use existing state revenues to pay for the increase.

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