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A threat to close schools, a search for $1.6 billion in funding, and a host of other issues await lawmakers as they return to Topeka
TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers return to the Statehouse Monday from a week-long break to start the second phase of the 2017 session. And thanks to a Kansas Supreme Court decision last week, school funding will immediately go to the top of the agenda.
That won’t be the only issue they deal with. Still left on the table after the first half of the session are issues like Medicaid expansion, guns on campuses, balancing the budget for the rest of this fiscal year, and of course taxes, which is now closely related to the school funding issue.
But it’s likely that school funding will suck a lot of oxygen out of the room for the next several weeks, especially given the court’s implicit threat to close public schools on July 1 unless lawmakers come up with a new funding plan that will meet constitutional muster.
“So if by June 30, 2017, the State has not satisfactorily demonstrated to this court that any K-12 public education financing system the legislature enacts is capable of meeting the adequacy requirements of Article 6, then a lifting of the stay of today's mandate will mean that the state's education financing system is constitutionally invalid and therefore void,” the court said in its latest ruling in the case Gannon vs. Kansas.
Translation: The court will not allow the state to operate an unconstitutional school funding system.
Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, who serves on the House K-12 Education Budget Committee — the panel in charge of crafting a new school funding formula — said that group could begin sifting through the Gannon decision.
Tuesday is currently reserved for a joint meeting between the K-12 Budget Committee and the Senate Education Committee. The plan was to hear from Education Commissioner Randy Watson about a program for managing and maintaining student data, but that plan could easily change.
In its budget proposal submitted last fall, the Kansas State Board of Education offered a glimpse of what it could cost to satisfy the Supreme Court.
That budget proposal was built around the state board’s new “vision” for public schools, called “KansasCan,” which it unveiled in 2015. In many ways, that vision mirrors the so-called Rose standards that the Supreme Court said it will use in judging the adequacy of school funding.
The plan is aimed at making sure all students are ready for college or a career by the time they graduate from high school. To do that, it looks beyond the basic reading and math scores that are often used as the basic measure of whether students are succeeding, and calls on schools to emphasize a number of “soft skills” like citizenship, punctuality, social engagement and generally getting along with others.
The price tag: at least $511 million in additional funding for the 2017-2018 school year; and another $330 million on top of that in the second year.
According to current revenue estimates, however, without revenue increases or spending cuts, the state is already projected to be $755 million short of what is needed to keep up with current spending. If one adds that to the state board’s price tag for adequately funding public schools, it comes to nearly $1.6 billion.
Besides school finance, here’s a look at where the Legislature stands on some of the other hottest issues of the session.
• Medicaid expansion: On the final day before lawmakers went on break, the Kansas House voted by an 81-44 margin to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would extend coverage to an estimated 181,000 people. That bill now goes to the Senate.
That vote, however, represented a strange cross-current between state and national political trends. Until this year, the Legislature was dominated by conservative Republicans who vehemently opposed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
That changed after the November elections, when Kansas voters elected a much more moderate Legislature. Nationally, however, that same election produced President Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, all of whom have vowed to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, which could well mean the end of expanded Medicaid.
In his address to a joint session of Congress last week, Trump reiterated that pledge, prompting loud applause from the Republican side of the aisle. But there is great division within the GOP ranks over what, if anything, to replace Obamacare with.
That prompted former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to suggest last week that Congress probably won’t repeal the law after all, but only tweak it in places to make it look more conservative.
For his part, Gov. Sam Brownback remains adamantly opposed to expanding Medicaid, but the Feb. 23 vote in the House suggests there could be enough support to override a veto — at least in that chamber — if supporters can round up three more yes votes.
• Concealed carry laws: If the Legislature does nothing to stop it this session, a law enacted in 2013 will go into effect requiring most publicly-owned buildings, including college and university campus buildings, to allow people to carry concealed handguns inside.
Both the House and Senate Federal and State Affairs committees have rejected bills that would roll back at least part of those requirements. But opponents of concealed carry believe they have enough votes to pass such a bill through the full chambers. All they need is another gun-related bill to come to the floor so they can add an amendment.
Two such bills are pending in the House committee, and it’s unlikely those bills can be blocked.
One, requested by Attorney General Derek Schmidt, would re-enact what’s called a “reciprocity” rule that would say Kansas will recognize concealed-carry permits issued by other states, as long as those states recognize one from Kansas.
That law was repealed in 2014 when Kansas stopped requiring people to have permits, or even any training, before they could carry concealed weapons. Other states, though, still require permits, and Kansans who want to carry weapons when they travel out-of-state still need to obtain one, and they need Kansas to reinstate its reciprocity law.
The other bill is being requested by law enforcement agencies. It would amend the list of people who are not allowed to possess handguns so it would mirror federal law.
•Current year’s budget: Even with a positive revenue report for February, the state is projected to be about $281 million short of what is needed to fund the last four months of the current fiscal year’s budget.
The House passed and sent to the Senate a bill that largely mirrored Brownback’s own proposal, which called for borrowing about $317 million from a state idle funds account and delaying scheduled payments to schools and the state pension system.
Republican leaders in the Senate, however, say they don’t want to use one-time sources of funding, and they are pushing for actual spending cuts this year in order to “structurally” balance the budget. So far, though, they haven’t been able to get most of the rest of the Senate — or even most of the GOP caucus — to go along with that.
Tax plan: The final days before the break were marked by dramatic efforts to push through a bill that would have raised more than $1 billion over the next two years by repealing many of the signature income tax cuts that Brownback championed in 2012.
Brownback vetoed the bill. The House voted to override his veto, but the override effort fell a few votes short in the Senate.
Republican leaders in the Senate, however, said their only objection to the bill was that it raised individual income tax rates retroactively to Jan. 1. Bills have already been introduced in both chambers that are identical to the bill Brownback vetoed, minus the retroactive provision.
Those bills are expected to see quick action after lawmakers return Monday.