Lawmakers convene amid budget crisis, school finance suit

? Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle said Monday that she’s willing to look at all options, including the possibility of rolling back some tax cuts enacted in previous years, to address the state’s mounting budget crisis.

And the chairman of the Senate Education Committee said he plans to introduce a bill to revamp the Kansas school finance formula.

Those were just some of the developments as Kansas lawmakers officially convened the 2015 legislative session in Topeka.

“All options are on the table,” said Wagle, R-Wichita, when asked how she wants lawmakers to address the state’s projected $279 million revenue shortfall this year.

In November, state budget officials lowered their official estimate of how much revenue the state is expected to bring in, largely due to the sweeping tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013. They projected a $279 million shortfall for the current fiscal year that ends June 30 and a $436 million shortfall for the next fiscal year.

That was followed by a district court ruling Dec. 30 that said Kansas public schools are unconstitutionally underfunded. And while the court did not order a specific remedy, it suggested another $548 million per year in additional school funding may be needed.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who was sworn in to his second term Monday, has proposed filling this year’s budget hole largely with fund transfers and minor cuts in state spending. But much of his plan requires legislative approval, and even his Republican allies in the Legislature are saying they may want to take a different approach.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said lawmakers will not merely give rubber-stamp approval to the governor’s plan.

“We do have a committee process to go through,” Bruce said. “I think we have, at least in the Ways and Means Committee in the Senate, people that want to dive in a little more and get some systemic changes to the budget for fiscal 2015, and hopefully try to find some changes and roll that over into 2016 to help fill the hole there as well.”

Brownback is expected to outline his budget plan for the next two fiscal years — those ending on June 30, 2016 and 2017 — during the annual State of the State address, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Full details of his budget will be released Friday.

School finance

Adding to the state’s budget woes is a Dec. 30 district court decision that said Kansas schools are unconstitutionally underfunded, and suggesting as much as $548 million a year in additional funding could be needed.

Brownback has said he thinks it’s time to completely overhaul the state’s school finance formula, and on Monday, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee said he intends to propose a new formula early in the session.

“I have thought it was appropriate to do that for several years,” said Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City. “And so yes, I think it’s appropriate to do that this year, and it doesn’t have much to do with the court case. I’m not saying that. Not because of the court case. I’m saying it because we need to have a different focus on education.”

Abrams did not disclose details of his plan but said it would focus more on improving student achievement.

“The output that Kansans, the state of Kansas and, I hope, the Legislature would agree with is, what do we want in our students?” Abrams said. “What does it mean to be an educated student? An educated student means that that student ought to be on a pathway to the middle class. They ought to be able to buy a house, provide for their family, pay taxes, buy a few toys and be on a pathway to the middle class.”

But his colleagues in the House were less optimistic that overhauling the school finance formula can be done in one session.

“It would be very difficult to do it in one year,” said Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, the new chairman of the House Education Committee.

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to argue that there’s nothing wrong with the current formula.

“The system’s not broken,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, who serves on the House committee. “When they say it’s broken, they don’t give you any examples of where it is. We just don’t fund it; that’s the problem.”

The House and Senate education committees will start work Wednesday when they hold a joint meeting to hear a report from the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission, which the Legislature formed last year to make recommendations about how schools can be more efficient with the money they receive from the state.

The two budget committees will get their briefings on the governor’s budget plan during a joint meeting scheduled for Friday.