Kansas House committee advances school finance plan that would add $522M in new funding

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

? A House committee worked late into the night Wednesday and advanced a school finance bill that would add an estimated $522 million in new funding for public schools, spread out over five years.

The new plan is slightly different from one that House Republican leaders had offered to the Democratic caucus earlier in the day. But the essential elements were the same.

It would add a little more than $29 million in new “base” state aid money for the upcoming 2018-2019 school year, on top of the $98 million in new money that lawmakers approved last year. Then it would gradually increase base per-pupil aid over the ensuing four years until it reaches $4,718 per-pupil in the 2022-2023 school year. That’s up from the current aid amount of $4,006 per pupil.

But instead of adding $84 million in new special education funding next year, the plan, House Bill 2445, calls for adding only $44 million in the first year, and then adding an additional $7.5 million in each of the next four years.

Part of that would come from new money, while part would come from automatic inflationary increases that were built into the 2017 funding plan.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, had called the GOP plan a “good first step.” But Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, the ranking Democrat on the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, said Democrats would stake out a position in committee negotiations seeking a larger increase.

“At this point, I personally don’t believe this is enough money to satisfy the court,” Trimmer said during the Wednesday afternoon caucus meeting.

After the committee voted to advance the bill, Trimmer reiterated that he still does not think it will pass constitutional muster.

In October, the Kansas Supreme Court declared that the school funding plan passed last year was insufficient, and it ordered lawmakers to pass a funding plan that will meet constitutional muster early in the 2018 session

Democrats said that the new bill really only adds about $350 million in new money, above what’s already provided in current law. But they said they expect some Republicans to argue that it could be seen as more than an $800 million increase above what schools were getting prior to this year.

However one looks at it, the increase is still far short of what was recommended in a new cost study that was released March 16 that said upwards of $2 billion a year in new funding would be needed to raise all students up to grade-level performance on statewide reading and math exams, or to ensure that at least 60 percent of them are prepared to enter college by the time they graduate.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said earlier in the day that significant progress had been made in just the last few days toward reaching an agreement.

“Definitely closer today than we were yesterday, but very pleased with the progress that we’ve made,” he told reporters following the House’s morning session.

He noted that revenues flowing into state coffers have been higher in recent months than budget officials had expected, some of which he attributed to changes in federal tax law that Congress enacted in December. But he also said increasing funding for K-12 education is not the Legislature’s only priority.

“We’re definitely concerned about other core functions of state government, especially those that aren’t constitutionally protected,” he told reporters. “We’re going to assure that we put money into mental health and early childhood. We’re going to make sure our road system is going to be the best it can be. So yeah, we’re balancing out the needs of K-12 with all the needs of the rest of the state.”

Ward, however, presented a spreadsheet to the Democratic caucus showing that revenues flowing into the state so far this fiscal year have been $380 million higher than what lawmakers expected last year when they wrote the new school funding plan. He said that means the Republican plan could be funded without a tax increase.

“No one in our caucus is talking about revenues, no matter what you hear out there,” Ward said. “No one is saying the T-word (taxes). We’re just not doing it.”

However, the House is considering another bill that could create an entirely new stream of revenue, legalized sports gambling. It could bring in significant amounts of new money, assuming, as many expect, that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn a federal law that currently prohibits all but four states from allowing it.

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee conducted a hearing Wednesday on House Bill 2792, the second sports gaming bill it has heard this session. A fiscal note attached to that bill cited studies suggesting that total sports wagers in Kansas could reach $1.5 billion a year if the law were enacted. Some supporters of the bill suggested the state’s cut of that could be as high as $75 million a year, but state budget officials said they could not estimate how much profit that would generate or how much would flow back to the state.

“It does seem extremely high to me, but I haven’t studied it very much. But I’d love to see the numbers from our budget office,” Ryckman said.

Lawmakers are tentatively scheduled to adjourn the regular part of the 2018 legislative session on Friday, April 6, and then leave for a three-week break. But leaders in both parties have said in recent days that they don’t plan to adjourn until a school funding bill passes.

“We literally have to vote to adjourn, and I think enough of us would decline to do that, but we will stay here and get our job done,” Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, a member of the school finance committee, said in an interview.

The Supreme Court has given the state a deadline of April 30 to submit briefs detailing what actions have been taken to address its October 2017 ruling.