Kansas Legislature sends school finance bill to governor after extending its session at the last minute

Members of the Kansas House look up to the voting board after casting their votes on an amendment to a school funding compromise by House and Senate leadership on Saturday, April 7, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

? Kansas lawmakers finally agreed early Sunday morning to pass a $522 million increase in annual K-12 school funding, phased in over five years.

By a vote of 21-19, the Senate voted around 12:20 a.m. to accept a school funding plan based largely on the one originally offered by the House, one that is nearly twice as large as the Senate’s original plan.

Gov. Jeff Colyer immediately issued a statement saying he intends to sign the bill.

“I am pleased that we were able to compromise and pass a bill that ensures our schools will remain open and are funded adequately and equitably,” Colyer said in the statement. “I appreciate the work the legislature and others have put in to get this done, and I look forward to continuing to work with them to serve the people of Kansas.”

But resolution of the issue came only after lawmakers waited until literally the last possible minute to pass a resolution allowing the session to continue beyond midnight.

When lawmakers left the building, however, it was unclear when they would return. At the end of all the action, the House adjourned until April 26, the start of the wrap-up session, while the Senate had planned to come back on Sunday to finish working on other legislation.

The two chambers had been at loggerheads for most of the day over extending the session, as well as scheduling a final wrap-up session to begin in about three weeks and a date for the final “sine die” adjournment of the session in May.

At 11:59 p.m., with less than 60 seconds remaining before the session would have come to an automatic end, the House finally agreed to the Senate’s schedule.

Had that not happened, the session would have come to an automatic close at midnight, which would have triggered a special session in which all legislation not yet passed by both chambers and sent to the governor would have to be rewritten from scratch.

The Kansas Constitution requires that in even-numbered years, legislative sessions are limited to 90 calendar days, unless both chambers pass a resolution, with two-thirds majorities in each chamber, to extend beyond that deadline. Saturday marked the 90th day.

The long delay Saturday was largely the result of the fact that the Senate spent most of its day avoiding discussion of school finance and instead 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 cut before lawmakers received 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, sensing 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.

“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.”

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 to join them.

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.