School finance lawsuit looms large as Kansas’ 2018 legislative session begins Monday

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

? Kansas lawmakers return to the Statehouse Monday for the start of the 2018 session, with a threat hanging over their heads from the Kansas Supreme Court to close public schools if they don’t act quickly to fix constitutional problems in the state’s school finance system.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback will deliver his eighth, and final, State of the State address at 5 p.m. Tuesday, a speech he has promised will include his response to the court’s Oct. 2 decision, which said the current funding system is inadequate and inequitable.

But speaking with reporters Thursday, Brownback declined to give any details of what kind of fix, if any, he will propose.

“Stay tuned,” he said after a meeting of the State Finance Council.

The court has set an April 30 deadline for lawyers for the state to submit briefs describing what actions the Legislature has taken to address the constitutional problems it found in October.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, however, has urged lawmakers to act by March 1 so his staff will have time to prepare those briefs.

The biggest of those is the adequacy issue, which some have suggested may require an additional $600 million a year in new funding — a figure roughly equal to the size of the tax increase lawmakers passed last year.

Republican leaders in the Legislature, however, have all but ruled out another tax increase in 2018.

“My legislators are repulsed at the thought of another tax increase. It’s just not going to happen,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said to reporters during an impromptu news conference Dec. 29.

But House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, suggested Wagle may not have been speaking for all Republicans.

“Sen. Wagle has been interesting. She wasn’t really a key player in the coalition last year,” he said, referring to the bipartisan coalition that voted to override Brownback’s veto of the tax bill. “She was really just kind of a noise on the outside and the far right. I look forward to bringing her into a coalition for bipartisan solutions. Until I see her take steps to show that she’s willing to do that, I’m not concerned about her.”

But Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, who chairs the Senate Taxation Committee and who is running for the 2nd District congressional seat this year, said she is not interested in another tax increase.

“I hope a tax increase is off the table,” she said in an interview.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, was not quite as emphatic as Wagle, but he rated the chances of another tax hike passing this year as “very, very unlikely.”

“I would say the people of Kansas still appreciate what we did in the 2017 session. That doesn’t mean they’re ready for us to double down and double the size of that tax increase this session,” he said during an interview.

Hineman also described Schmidt’s request to act by March 1 as “unrealistic” because the Legislature only recently hired a team of consultants to perform a study to determine how much it should cost to meet the Supreme Court’s standard for suitability. That report is expected to come in mid-March.

A special interim committee met three times in December to study the court’s decision in the school finance case, Gannon v. Kansas, along with options for addressing that. One option it examined was to cut $600 million out of all other agencies outside of K-12 education, which would amount to roughly an 18 percent across-the-board cut to everything from social services to Regents university funding — a cut that agency officials said would be devastating.

The committee concluded its work without making any recommendations, but Hineman said the work it did would be helpful for lawmakers to get a start addressing the issue.

“There’s not an easy fix, either on the revenue side or on the budget side by cutting other departments and agencies. So it’s a difficult challenge, and I don’t think anyone has the answer right now,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, also have not coalesced around a fix to the school finance issue, but Ward said they have agreed on the general principles they want to achieve.

“I think our caucus uniformly says every child deserves an opportunity to pursue their God-given talents, regardless of where they live, whether it’s property-rich or property-poor,” he said during an interview. “And we also believe that resources need to be there so teachers can do their job and those kids get those opportunities. Now, what those pieces look like, last year we had several ideas that were presented and rejected by the majority party, so we look forward to them presenting their ideas now.”

Other issues

Although school finance is certain to dominate the early part of the session, there are several others that are likely to come up, most dealing with social issues such as gun rights and sexual harassment in the Statehouse.

And there may be plenty of time to deal with those issues because lawmakers do not need to spend much time this year working on a budget. That’s because last year they passed a two-year budget plan, so the only issues this year, outside of school finance, will be modifications to that budget.

“Yeah, there are plenty of other issues to deal with,” Hineman said. “There will be plenty to occupy our time while we’re waiting for all that to come together.”

So far, two bills have been pre-filed dealing with gun safety issues.

One, by Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, would make it a crime for someone to abandon a gun in a public place where it would be accessible to anyone else, a response to an incident on the University of Kansas campus in September when a handgun was found in a men’s bathroom in Wescoe Hall.

Another, by Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, would ban the use of “bump stocks” or similar devices that make an ordinary rifle work like a fully automatic weapon. That bill is a response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October that left 58 people dead and more than 500 people wounded.

Hineman, however, said lawmakers may be reluctant to consider those bills, out of fear they could be amended to become much broader in scope.

“That’s the problem with any legislative proposal. It can morph into something more than what the author originally intended,” he said.

Addressing the issue of sexual harassment in the Statehouse is one that will likely get wide bipartisan support.

That issue made headlines in October when a former House staffer, Abbie Hodgson, told a national publication that she was routinely harassed when she worked for former Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, although she did not identify any of the people she said had harassed her. She also said legislative interns were routinely pressed into service after hours to serve as designated drivers for inebriated lawmakers.

Following those reports, Wagle led an effort to bring in the Kansas City-based Women’s Foundation to study the Legislature’s current policies, which hadn’t been updated in more than 20 years, and to make recommendations for reform.

The Women’s Foundation issued its report in late December, suggesting a comprehensive overhaul of current policies, including mandatory sexual harassment training for all legislators, staff, interns and lobbyists, as well as hiring outside attorneys who would be charged with investigating sexual harassment complaints.

“I think they were comprehensive and well thought-out, and we should take serious steps,” Ward said of the report. “I think we can do mandatory training now as we investigate the other (recommendations). I’d like to get an independent investigator now so we can go into the beginning of this session with those pieces in place and then look at the others. Some of them were more national than state, but we should look at every one of them.”