The Kansas House and Senate continued working late into the night Saturday without resolving their differences over a school funding bill, even as a midnight deadline approached to either extend the session beyond 90 days or let the session end automatically at midnight.
As of 11:30 p.m., the Senate was still debating whether or not to concur with a bill the House had sent over early in the afternoon.
Both chambers had passed resolutions to allow the session to continue meeting into Sunday, and setting dates for a final wrap-up session to start in late April. But they were different: the Senate version would set the day for the “sine die” end of the session as May 4, while the House set sine die on May 24.
The two chambers had not agreed on one adjournment resolution as of 11:30 p.m., which they would need to do to let the session continue.
The Senate spent nearly all of the time in between debating a tax bill that was aimed at preventing the state from reaping a windfall as an indirect result of recent changes in the federal tax code.
Conservatives in the Senate had made that a priority, saying if the Legislature did not act, it would effectively result in a tax increase at the state level, an increase that the Legislature never approved.
Democrats and some moderate Republicans, though, argued that it was premature to pass such a tax bill before lawmakers receive new, updated revenue projections, which are due later this month.
But as the tax debate dragged on, a large number of teachers, many wearing red Kansas National Education Association T-shirts started gathering in the Statehouse, suspecting that conservatives might be filibustering on the tax bill in order to prevent a vote on the school finance bill.
“We were at the representative assembly for Kansas NEA and we heard the Senate was going to delay any possible action on school funding,” Phillip Wrigley, a Lawrence resident who teaches at Topeka High School, told the Journal-World. “Now they’re trying to avoid taking action on that, so we’re here to make sure they actually do fulfill their constitutional responsibilities.”
House Democratic Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, said he was convinced Senate Republicans were deliberately trying to delay a vote on school finance, which could result in forcing Gov. Jeff Colyer to call lawmakers back for a special session.
“If they blow up the session, all the work that was done today, whether you like the bill or don’t like the bill, goes away and we start over (Sunday) or Monday from scratch,” he said. “And what sense does that make? It’s time for the Senate and Republicans to quit playing games with the future of Kansas.”
By law, if the legislative session comes to an end, any legislation that hasn’t passed both chambers and been sent to the governor is considered dead and cannot be revived, even in a special session.
Early Saturday, it looked as though a deal was in place when Republican leaders in the Senate agreed to allow the House to put the contents of its bill into a Senate bill and send it back to the Senate for a motion to concur with the changes.
That was a deal apparently reached overnight after conference committee negotiations over the bill had virtually collapsed. The Senate had passed a bill adding roughly $522 million in new funding over the next five years, but Senate negotiators indicated Friday night they were not willing to budge from their position of a $274 million increase, phased in over five years.
The new bill barely passed the House, 63-56, the bare minimum number of yes votes needed. Those who opposed the bill included a rare mix of conservatives who felt it spent too much and Democrats who argued it was still too low.
Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard, Boog Highberger and Eileen Horn of Lawrence all voted against the bill. Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, was absent.
By the time the House had passed the bill, however, the Senate was already debating its tax bill, which would reduce revenues the state might otherwise receive over the next five years by an estimated $494 million, nearly as much as the school finance bill would cost.
But conservatives in the Senate, led by Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, who chairs the Senate committee that produced that chamber’s bill, were more intent on passing the tax bill than considering the school finance bill.
Meanwhile, as the hours passed, the crowd outside the Senate chamber grew larger and started attracting a number of Democratic and moderate Republican politicians.
Among them was former Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who is now running for the open 2nd District congressional seat.
“Decades ago, Kansans adopted a constitutional amendment that said this is so important to us, so important to the future of our state, that we are going to put into our state’s constitution, we will fund our schools. We will make sure our students have a suitable education,” Davis told the cheering crowd, referring to the 1966 amendment that inserted the current language about school funding.
“But there are people in this building who will try to tell you that they support public schools, they support you, they support the school children of Kansas, but they want to change the Constitution,” he added, referring to a proposed new amendment that would give the Legislature exclusive authority, not reviewable by the courts, to determine what constitutes adequate school funding.