Archive for Friday, February 16, 2018

Kansas public schools face backlash during state’s endless money crisis

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

February 16, 2018, 3:09 p.m. Updated February 16, 2018, 4:59 p.m.

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— Prisons in Kansas face a crisis in hiring staff because of poor pay. A former governor called a state hospital for the mentally ill "a pit." Highway projects are delayed because state funding keeps getting diverted to other priorities.

But an ongoing lawsuit has forced state legislators to be preoccupied with finding money for public schools ahead of those other pressing issues. And lawmakers are starting to resent that.

"It's like the schools are the grain truck. Instead of sharing the grain, they just keep raising the sides on the bed and keeping it all for themselves," said state Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Wichita-area Republican. "They've been able to keep themselves at the front of the line for a long time."

Legislators increased income taxes last year to help balance the budget and put some of the extra money they raised into schools. Most want to avoid the political poison of another big tax increase this year, but if they do that and put schools first, they worry that other long-suffering agencies and programs could keep suffering.

Educators are well aware of the backlash but contend schools and state agencies are living with the consequences of past state income tax cuts championed by former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. Those tax policies received renewed national attention as Congress approved similar federal income tax cuts late last year.

Even after Kansas lawmakers reversed most of the Brownback-inspired state tax cuts last year, budget problems remained and awaited new GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer after Brownback resigned last month to take an ambassador's post.

"You can't blame schools," said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the state's largest teachers union. "You can lament it all you want, but it's a problem of your own making."

Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year — more than half of its general revenues — on its public schools. But the state Supreme Court ruled in October that even with a funding increase approved last year, it's not sufficient under the state constitution.

The state has been in and out of lawsuits over education funding for decades, and the current one was filed in 2010 by four school districts. The Supreme Court has issued five rulings in the past four years requiring new spending on public schools.

In its last ruling in October, the court did not set a specific spending target but hinted that it could be $650 million more a year.

Top Republican leaders signaled that they want to avoid such a big increase in spending on schools by commissioning an outside academic study of education costs in hopes of generating a lower figure that lawmakers could defend in court. The study is due in mid-March, and work on school funding legislation is stalled until it's done.

"Maybe we say, 'We've got to live within our means,'" said Senate budget committee chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a moderate Wichita-area Republican. "Maybe we need to reassess the direction we're going."

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, said lawmakers are right to expect to squeeze other parts of state government if they increase spending on schools.

"That is the math of it," he said. "There's only so much taxpayer money."

Even moderate Republicans receptive to higher spending on schools are pushing to broaden the budget discussion, suggesting that extra spending on social services helps ensure that young children start school ready to learn.

Other lawmakers see public safety as a bigger priority after disturbances at multiple prisons last year. Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told one panel this week that pay remains a problem even after a pay raise for uniformed officers last year — and if he could find enough workers, budget constraints require him to leave nearly 10 percent of all positions unfilled anyway.

"We can't gut those other functions of government just to meet the demands of one sector," said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from western Kansas.

But public schools have something other recipients of state dollars do not: a provision in the Kansas Constitution requiring legislators to "make suitable provision" for funding them.

"They are going to be first in line," said Democratic state Rep. Tom Sawyer, of Wichita.

Comments

Calvin Anders 4 months ago

It doesn't seem to matter how many times the state Supreme Court spells it out for them, the conservative jackals in the legislature don't want to fulfill their duty to provide adequate funding for public schools. They made the mess by cutting taxes and cutting funding to the bone. Brownie and the legislature made the mess with prisons and mental hospitals and highway projects by cutting funding and moving to privatize. They made the mess and now they want to point fingers and blame the institutions that are suffering for their neglect for the problem. Their excuse is always that their is not enough money. We should worry that they will say the same things when it's time to cover the money they looted from the highway funds. We should worry they will say the same when it comes to state employee pensions when they have to pay back the money they looted from KPERS. They are the ones giving the tax breaks to the wealthy and to corporate interests. They are the ones passing out huge (and largely hidden) incentives to businesses. They are the ones mismanaging state finances and then pointing the finger at others.

Cindy Wallace 4 months ago

Agreed, Calvin Enders, and maybe, just maybe we reinstate ALL of the tax cuts, working our way out of this Brownie hole!!

Cille King 4 months ago

Yes, all the tax cuts should be restored, and Kansas would be in a better position to fund necessary programs. The Brownback tax cuts reduced revenue by $900 million. The 2017 tax bill only restored about $600 million. 85% of the tax cuts went to Corporations and the wealthy - just as last December's GOP tax cuts. Lets restore a progressive tax system where those who can pay, are the ones who pay. After all, the corporations greatly benefit from an educated, healthy work force, maintained infrastructure to move goods and people, services that provide water and energy, fire and police safety, and an adequate justice system.

Ray Mizumura 4 months ago

Makes sense, as sense is defined in the Kansas State Legislature. They're good at one thing, that's for sure--blaming victims. But they take it one better, and portray the victims as victimizers.

Yeah, not enough revenues, that's for sure. You might try lightening up with some of your policies so as to have a little better chance of attracting people to the state instead of driving them away by emulating the likes of Alabama.

That regressive sales tax that you gift-wrapped and sent special delivery to the common people of Kansas so they'd have some "skin in the game" as you call it--not too bright, especially when you've gone out of your way to skin them alive and pick their bones clean.

Maybe I'm being too harsh, though. Your "Don't Tread on Me" license plates might turn things around and create not just some big-time cash flow, but even a tidal wave that sweeps us all to a brighter future.

Ray Mizumura 4 months ago

Well, sure--since we're already in an economic crisis, why not go ahead and use some of the revenues that we don't have anyway to contract with an outside agency to do a review? Sure, that's costly, but it beats the hell out of accountability, doesn't it?

Richard Neuschafer 4 months ago

Can'r expect anything worthwhile from Ty Masterson, the senate liaison for ALEC. He'll run the state into the ground if he can. He's owned by Charles Koch.

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