Colyer wants quick fix to Kansas school funding bill; others want to reopen entire debate

photo by: Peter Hancock

Gov. Jeff Colyer speaks with reporters in this file photo from his first day in office, Feb. 1, 2018.

? Gov. Jeff Colyer said Wednesday that he wants lawmakers to fix an $80 million error in the school funding bill they passed Sunday morning without trying to make major changes to the bill, but others say the error poses an opportunity to reopen the entire school funding debate.

“In many ways this is a technical correction, but we want everybody to work together on that,” Colyer said during a Statehouse news conference Wednesday.

Lawmakers passed the school funding bill early Sunday morning, just before adjourning the regular session, after long and sometimes acrimonious debates in both chambers.

They will return April 26 for the start of a nine-day wrap-up session, during which time they will have to pass a final budget bill and deal with fixing the school finance bill.

The bill was intended to phase in a $534 million increase in school funding over five years, something that supporters hope will satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court, which has declared current funding levels inadequate and unconstitutional.

The Kansas attorney general’s office, however, has only until April 30 to submit briefs to the court, explaining what lawmakers have done to comply with the court’s order to pass a constitutional funding system.

Officials at the Kansas State Department of Education caught the error on Monday and posted a notice of it on the agency’s website, along with spreadsheets showing what the bill was intended to do, as well as what it would actually do as it was written.

Those spreadsheets show that the bill lawmakers passed would add only a little more than $71 million statewide in the upcoming 2018-2019 school year instead of the $151 million lawmakers had intended.

For the Lawrence school district, the error would result in a little less than $1.2 million in additional funding next year, instead of $3.4 million that the local district was supposed to receive.

The bill passed both chambers by slim margins — 63-56 in the House; 21-19 in the Senate — with conservative Republicans arguing that the bill was too expensive and Democrats arguing it didn’t add enough money to satisfy the Supreme Court.

And in the Senate, conservatives stretched out the debate late into the night Saturday, pressing against a midnight deadline for lawmakers to either pass the bill or pass a resolution extending the session.

Going past midnight without a resolution to extend the session would have left all unfinished legislation dead for the year, unless another special session was called.

One of the conservatives in the Senate who opposed the bill was Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, who said Wednesday that she thought lawmakers should revisit the entire school funding bill when they return April 26.

“The bill needs to be revisited for several reasons,” Tyson said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Among other things, she said, a number of small, rural school districts would actually get less money under the plan that lawmakers passed.

“Rural schools are important to our economy,” Tyson said. “Maybe it’s hard for people from an urban area to realize that, but they are.”

During debate on the House floor Saturday, Democrats offered an amendment that would have added another $185 million to school funding over five years. That amendment, by Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, failed, 41-78.

Trimmer said in a phone interview Wednesday that if a new bill is offered during the wrap-up session to fix the previous one, he plans to offer that amendment again.

“Yeah, I think we need to,” he said.

Supporters of the original House bill said it was intended to bring funding levels up to the level where they were in 2008, adjusted for inflation. They argue that was the last year when Kansas had a funding system that satisfied the Supreme Court, before the state began cutting funding in the wake of the Great Recession.

Trimmer’s amendment, however, uses a different method of computing the inflation factor from previous years, applying it to the base per-pupil aid formula rather than to the grand total of all K-12 education spending.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, also said a bill to fix the education bill could reopen the entire debate, although he said he did not personally plan to do that.

“Eighty million dollars is not technical,” he said in a phone interview. “But I’m not going to stand in the way of fixing the bill.”

Ward said he hadn’t yet spoken with other House Democrats to find out whether they want to try such an amendment again.

Colyer said he didn’t know how lawmakers intended to approach the issue when they return for the wrap-up session, but he said he hoped they would simply fix the bill and return it to its original intent of a $534 million increase over five years.

“This was the original intent of the legislation that was there,” he told reporters Wednesday. “This is what was in the original House bill. And so I think that everybody is certainly willing to work.”