Archive for Friday, May 5, 2006

Negotiations continue over school finance plans

May 5, 2006

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— Negotiators failed Thursday to come up with a compromise school finance package that will satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order and hasten the session's end.

Three-member delegations from the House and Senate met for about an hour, finishing their review of several policy provisions sought by the House. It also became clear that the House wasn't planning to defend a $633 million spending package the chamber adopted March 30.

That plan was offered by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats. But the coalition fell apart earlier this week when the House tried another, much smaller package that was ultimately defeated.

"I don't think the Senate is inclined to make an offer, because they like what they have, and we don't like what we have," said Rep. Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center, the House's lead negotiator.

Negotiators decided to take some time off to think over their options and return to the table Friday.

House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said he was optimistic a compromise could emerge quickly, one that a majority of Republicans and Democrats could accept.

"We're just giving everyone a little time to think. Give them the time to decide what's important to them," he said. "We really have nothing to talk about now. We believe the Senate is in the ballpark."

Mays said he met with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius over school finance, calling it a "cordial discussion" in which the governor urged legislators to find an accord and bring the issue to close.

The speaker said movement was needed by House Democrats who want more money for rural schools in general and urban districts for poor students, as well as Johnson County moderates looking for greater ability to raise local property taxes.

"We'll try to put something together Friday and run it then or Saturday," Mays said.

Although House negotiators are working off the moderate Republican and Democrat coalition's spending bill, Decker is only mentioning the policy provisions as essential items the GOP leadership wants in the final bill.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jean Schodorf said her team was likely to ask the House negotiators to agree to the Senate's $541 million package, which includes $75 million in increased teacher pensions plus millions more for students at risk of failure in school.

Schodorf said senators were adamant that the plan be less than $500 million over three years, not counting the pension contributions.

Senators also are unlikely to support increasing the amount of property taxes that school districts can raise to augment state funding. Schodorf said increasing the percentages above those already in Kansas law - 29 percent of their general fund budgets in 2006-07 and 30 percent in 2007-08 - would likely cost votes in the Senate.

"We're in this position because the House has put itself in this position. It's this coalition versus the other coalition," said Schodorf, R-Wichita. "We would be pleased for them to adopt one position.

"A little thinking, a little pressure, or we can come back this summer when they should be campaigning."

The court has ordered the state to spend more money for education. If it doesn't like what legislators do, they could face a summer session to satisfy the court, like last year.

The talks came as the 2006 wrap-up session entered its ninth day. School finance was among several major issues still in play, including tax breaks for business and industry, changes in sex offender laws and a bill restricting protests at funerals. Talks and chamber debates over those issues made it difficult for negotiators to meet.

"We're kind of in limbo," Decker said. "The Senate's in the driver's seat on this, not us. It will not take long once we get a clear schedule."

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