Kansas House Rejects Plan To Increase Taxes for Schools
The Kansas House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a bill last week that would have revamped the way the state's schools are financed. But members of the Senate were much more receptive to the idea, agreeing to keep it alive for reconsideration later this month.
Kansas now relies heavily on statewide and local property taxes to pay for its public schools. But the plans debated in both bodies of the legislature last week would have opened up additional sources of revenue to the schools from sales taxes and other levies.
The bills were versions of legislation originally crafted by Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, who has recently been pushing for a tax hike to increase money for schools beyond the $68 million in new aid that he proposed in his budget plan in January.
With little fanfare, the House soundly rejected the legislation on April 4, by a vote of 115- 7.
"There was very little debate, very little talk," said Rep. Ralph M. Tanner, the chairman of the House education committee and a Republican who voted with the majority. "Members of the House determined that we're not passing a tax bill this year even before we came into session."
Beyond the House vote, Mr. Tanner added, the push for greater education spending in Kansas could be hampered by recent state revenue projections—for both the current and coming fiscal years—that are far less rosy than forecasts made earlier this year.
"Any funding bill for any purpose will be dead on arrival in the House, because we don't have sufficient funds to fund any new amounts for education or any other issue beyond what we've absolutely got to do," said Rep. William G. Mason, a Republican who serves on the education committee and voted against the funding plan.
The legislation fared better in the Senate last week, although it did not win passage in that chamber either. When supporters realized they lacked enough votes to pass the plan, they elected against an immediate vote on the measure and instead agreed to return it to the Senate education committee to be revised in the hope that it will receive more support later in the session, said Sen. Duane Umbarger, the Republican who chairs the committee.
The Senate bill calls for increasing school funding by $253.5 million over two years, paid for through higher taxes, Mr. Umbarger said. Per-pupil spending would rise by $240, from $3,820 to $4,060, under the bill. The package also includes $40 million in funding for schools that provide before- and after- school programs, $14.2 million more for special education, and $14.9 million more to aid school districts that have declining enrollments.
To pay for those increases, the state sales tax would rise from 4.9 percent to 5.1 percent, and levies on both alcohol and tobacco would go up. A new tax on soft drinks would also be imposed.
"When you say 'tax increase,' some people just sign off," Mr. Umbarger said.
Back to Committee
The Senate education committee plans to rework the bill this week, trimming it in an attempt to make the plan less expensive, Mr. Umbarger said. Though it may be impossible to avoid a tax increase, he said, lawmakers will seek options that are more palatable to their colleagues.
"We'll probably drop the pop tax, and entertain income taxes and estate taxes," he said.
A report released last week by the Consensus Estimating Group, an independent body that tracks state revenue, may well have a significant impact, meanwhile, on the school finance debate.
Because of its declining economy, Kansas is likely to receive $74 million less than anticipated in the remaining three months of the current budget cycle, and $111 million less than expected in fiscal 2002, the study shows.
That means that spending will either have to be cut in the next fiscal year or that taxes will have to rise, said Don Brown, a spokesman for the governor.
Despite the new revenue forecasts, the Senate's discussion gave hope to Gov. Graves and to education groups that state lawmakers, too, perceive a need to increase spending on schools, Mr. Brown said. "There are 24 [out of 40] senators who agree with the governor that we need to do more than we have in the past three years," he said.
Legislators retooled the school finance formula in 1992 and have since provided cost-of-living increases to combat inflation, he said.
Mr. Brown said many lawmakers now recognize that the money provided under that formula won't be nearly enough to stave off a teacher shortage, one of the many challenges facing Kansas' schools.
Vol. 20, Issue 30, Page 27