Budget battle may pit Kansas schools against mental health, other spending priorities

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, argues in a committee meeting that the public should be allowed to see what kinds of budget sacrifices other state agencies will need to make in order to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school finance.

? Kansas lawmakers are gearing up for what could be a bitter fight in the next few weeks over school funding and how that will affect other areas of state spending.

That became apparent Monday during one of the first full debates about school finance this session in a House committee that will be in charge of writing a new school funding formula to address a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in October that found the school funding system lawmakers enacted last year unconstitutional.

Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, the new chairman of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, told the panel Monday that for the time being, the panel would only work on relatively isolated parts of the school funding system, such as special education funding, professional development for teachers and transportation for career and technical education programs.

Those recommendations will be sent to the full Appropriations Committee to become part of the overall budget package that lawmakers consider near the end of the session.

But the big issue about how much to spend for base per-pupil funding for schools — the portion that makes up the vast majority of the $5 billion annual K-12 education budget — will be dealt with in separate legislation.

“My hope would be that this committee simply lapses the 2019 appropriations (approved last year but struck down by the Supreme Court) so we don’t recommend anything to Appropriations next week, and then our committee will come up with a separate stand-alone bill, similar to what we did last year, that includes all K-12 appropriations,” Patton said.

That worried some members of the committee, particularly Democrats who argued that it will set up a bitter competition between education and all other state services over limited dollars available in the state budget.

“I understand that’s what the majority party wants to do, and I’ll tell you, that’s how we got into the court case,” said Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, who also serves on the full Appropriations Committee. “What we should be doing is funding what the budget is, and not putting off some of these important decisions.”

Helgerson noted that the full Appropriations Committee has already given tentative approval for spending increases in areas such as higher education, the judicial branch and state employee salaries. But he said addressing the Supreme Court’s order on school funding will likely force lawmakers to go back and delete funding for agencies and groups who now think their increases have already been approved.

“Significant amounts of money in the Appropriations Committee are being committed for other worthwhile projects, but that committee is spending money for something else rather than education, which puts us in a box of either raising taxes or having to cut budgets at the end of the session,” he said. “It’s poor fiscal policy, and we shouldn’t be doing it.”

But conservatives, including Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, who also serves on the full budget committee, defended the process, arguing that other areas of the budget have taken a back seat to K-12 education for years, and they have suffered as a result of it.

“This year we said, you know what, we’re going to basically come in there and say, ‘What can we say yes to?'” she continued. “And then let it sit side-by-side with the 52 percent of the budget (made up by K-12 education spending). And then people can make decisions: who and what do they not take care of so that the rest of the budget can suffer for the 52 percent.”

But House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said that’s exactly the kind of conversation he wants to avoid.

“And what I fear is going to happen, we’re going to see impassioned speeches that say third-graders are taking money away from mentally ill people; sixth-graders are taking money away from criminal justice; that our high school seniors are the reason why we can’t fund highways, because they’re taking all the money. They’re greedy kids,” Ward said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to receive a report next Thursday, March 15, from a pair of consultants hired to perform a cost study to determine how much additional money will be needed to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision.

That gives lawmakers only about three weeks to craft a new school funding plan before they adjourn the regular part of the 2018 session on Friday, April 6.

The House and Senate then take a three-week break in April before returning for the wrap-up session starting Thursday, April 26.

But lawmakers need to have their new funding plan in place before that, because the Supreme Court has given the state a deadline of April 30 to submit briefs explaining what they have done to address the constitutional flaws found in the existing formula.

The court has threatened to close down the public school system starting July 1 if lawmakers fail to enact a constitutional funding plan. Its decision on whether the plan lawmakers enact this year meets constitutional muster is expected by June 30.