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Published in Print: March 31, 2004, as Kansas Lawmakers Tied Up Over School Aid

Kansas Lawmakers Tied Up Over School Aid

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Faced with a judge’s demand to rewrite its school finance system, Kansas legislators are working on a quick fix that will buy them a bit more time before crafting a permanent solution.

The state House and Senate are considering one-year funding hikes they say would be first steps toward meeting a state judge’s ruling that Kansas fails to distribute pre-collegiate money equitably and doesn’t provide enough aid for a "suitable education" as promised in the state constitution.

"I’m not convinced that we can address all of [the judge’s] concerns all in one package all in one year," said Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, the chairman of the Senate education committee. "It’s a good-faith effort on our part that we’ve heard the court, and we’re making strides in addressing [the court’s] concerns."

Mr. Umbarger, a Republican, and others said legislators are wary about passing significant tax increases to meet the standards of a lower-court judge. Instead, they’re willing to postpone their long-term solution, he said, until the state’s supreme court rules on the case, which it is expected to do by the end of the year.

The Senate last week was debating a $67 million plan that would raise alcohol taxes and fees on utility bills and dedicate the money to schools. The House’s companion bill would add $28 million earmarked for low-income and limited-English-proficient students.

The state now spends $2.6 billion a year on K-12 schools.

Whatever the Republican-led legislature passes, however, still must win the approval of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who proposed a three-year plan to pay for what’s needed under the judge’s decision.

"The one-year Band-Aid is not the real solution," said Nicole R. Corcoran, a spokeswoman for Ms. Sebelius. "We need to address the problem more than one year out." The legislature is slated to adjourn April 2.

Election-Year Solution

School finance became the most important issue facing Kansas lawmakers this year when Judge Terry L. Bullock issued a preliminary ruling in December saying the state hasn’t done enough to finance schools, particularly ones that serve low-income and academically struggling students. ("Court Says Kansas School Aid System Needs Fixing," Dec. 10, 2003.)

Judge Bullock ordered state officials to fix the school finance system by July 1, but the state is trying to appeal his ruling to the state supreme court.

Gov. Sebelius proposed a package of tax increases that would raise $300 million to comply with the judge’s order. The increases would be spread across property and sales taxes, and be phased in over three years.

Republican lawmakers rejected that plan, Mr. Umbarger said, because the tax increases were politically unpalatable in a year when all legislators are facing re-election.

"What we’re hearing is that any kind of tax increase is dead on arrival in the House," he said.

Although the Senate bill he authored would raise taxes on alcohol, most of the money it would collect would come from "tweaking the system we have now," he said, which might make it attractive to House members.

Last week, House members made known their distaste for taxes when they roundly rejected the Republican leadership’s plan that could have increased property taxes.

Taxing Dilemma

The plan would have allowed school boards to eliminate the so-called homestead exemption on properties in the state. The exemption deducts $20,000 from the assessment on properties when they are taxed. At the current statewide property-tax rate, the exemption provides every property owner $40 a year.

Once House leaders removed homestead-exemption language from the bill, it passed.

Another provision of the bill would allow school boards in the 16 wealthiest districts to raise property-tax rates as a way of giving teachers extra compensation.

The House bill wouldn’t do enough to meet the judge’s order, according to a Democrat who voted against it, because it allows school systems with high property values to increase their spending and does very little to help districts serving low-income areas.

"I can’t imagine it’s going to be seen as a solution for this session," said state Rep. Bill Reardon, the senior Democrat on the House education committee. "Districts that are already wealthy are going to become more wealthy. That’s like spitting in the eye of the state judge."

With the legislature scheduled to wrap up this week, Mr. Reardon predicted that it won’t pass its solution to the school finance dilemma until it returns April 28 to vote on gubernatorial vetoes.

Vol. 23, Issue 29, Pages 18,22

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