School spending plan gets House OK, logjam may be clearing

? A plan to phase in a $610 million increase in aid to public schools over three years won tentative approval in the House early Friday morning after almost eight hours of debate.

A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans pieced together the plan on the House floor Thursday night, holding together slim majorities in crucial votes. Conservative GOP legislators attempted the stall the debate and splinter the coalition by offering numerous amendments in hopes of peeling off its members.

But the House voted 64-57 to advance the bill to final action, which was expected later Friday, when passage would send the bill to the Senate.

House Speaker Doug Mays predicted the vote would be close, but wasn’t surprised that the coalition, which had finalized the plan just hours before the debate began, held together.

“You cease to be surprised after 14 years here,” said Mays, R-Topeka. “It’s a great deal of money.”

Rep. Tom Sawyer, a coalition member, said the package was a blueprint for the Senate, which had delayed action of its own until after the House debate. Legislators are trying to comply with Kansas Supreme Court mandates on education funding and avoid a repeat of last year’s special session.

“It’s a good signal to the Senate that a majority will pass it and it has a good chance of passing court muster,” said Sawyer, D-Wichita.

Several amendments from conservative Republicans were rejected during the debate, including efforts to create scholarships for special-needs students to attend private schools, force a study on school consolidation and mandate that high school students be taught about fetal development and the risks involved in abortions.

Conservatives’ strategy included Rep. Shari Weber reading figures on individual school districts’ budgets so that others could draft amendments.

“The point is, money does matter,” Weber, R-Herington, told her colleagues.

House members weren’t sure how they would pay for the proposal because it contained no provisions for raising new revenues. Critics predicted a budget shortfall would confront legislators next year, and even supporters acknowledged they’d face problems by 2008.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said the state could face a budget gap of $1.2 billion within three years to fund the school plan, make no increases in spending for other state programs and meet legal requirements for cash reserves.

Mays predicted the budget shortfall would force both cuts in programs and tax increases.

The House considered the plan as three separate amendments to a school finance bill, which were approved on votes of 66-57, 63-61 and 63-62.

Conservatives denounced the plan as irresponsible. Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, called it “silly” and said it wouldn’t satisfy the Supreme Court’s demand that legislators meet a constitutional duty to adequately fund K-12 education.

Rep. Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said, “I’m deeply disappointed that we are going down a path that is so fiscally irresponsible.”

Key provisions of the plan included funding to allow all school districts to offer all-day kindergarten after three years and eliminating restrictions on local property taxes once the courts deem state aid sufficient.

Going into the debate, House leaders weren’t sure what – if anything – would pass their chamber.

The House Select Committee on School Finance endorsed a plan worth $420 million, which was junked during Thursday and Friday’s debate.

Senate leaders drafted a $660 million plan but haven’t scheduled a debate on it, waiting to see what happened in the House.

The Supreme Court ruled last year in a 1999 lawsuit that contended the state wasn’t spending enough money on education or distributing it fairly. Legislators were forced into a special session to deal with the court’s demands after justices said legislators hadn’t met them during the regular session.

Justices signed off on $290 million in spending increases for the current budget year, but called that an interim step. A study released in January by the Legislative Division of Post Audit recommended spending increases of at least $400 million.

House school finance plan: Sub for HB 2986; Senate plan: SB 584.

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