After 99 days of anger and anguish, Kansas lawmakers went home tonight following a rare Sunday session, leaving the governor to sign a bill slashing taxes and putting redistricting plans in the hands of the courts.
Legislators capped the last day by passing a $14.3 billion budget that added more money for schools but didn’t move forward Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan for overhauling the school finance formula.
The session was marked by a bitterly divided Legislature as the House and Senate clashed over a number of key issues, including the depth of tax cuts, school funding and drawing new election districts to account for shifts in the population.
“It’s tense and it’s difficult and it’s been difficult for me, too,” Brownback told House Republicans at their caucus Saturday morning.
The testy relationship between the two chambers — and especially between moderate and conservative Republicans — centered on a session-long feud over new election districts for Congress, the state House, the state Senate and the state Board of Education.
The Legislature failed to draw any new election maps, leaving a panel of federal judges to decided the issue beginning May 29.
Meanwhile, Brownback is poised to sign a massive tax bill that will cost roughly $3.7 billion over five years and is forecast to put the state in a financial hole as early as fiscal year 2013-14.
“This session is the beginning of devastating school cuts, social service cuts and critical government services that won’t be able to be delivered in the same capacity as they have,” said state Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
“I think that is the part of this session that will be heard by Kansans for many years to come,” said Davis, the House minority leader.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, who helped spearheaded passage of the tax plan, said he expects the tax plan to drive economic growth for Kansas.
“This tax relief is huge, as it should be,” O’Neal said. “Business interests in the country are looking at Kansas right now pretty strongly.”
However, he acknowledged that spending adjustments might come in the future.
“Will we face some challenges in the budget in the immediate year coming out of this? Sure. But the administration is ready to take care of those challenges.”
The budget approved Sunday reflected a deal reached just before midnight Saturday after lawmakers spent hours haggling over state spending.
The final school finance deal was $37 million less than what the Senate wanted for education and about $10 million less than what the House had proposed.
“It’s about as good as we could do,” said Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican and one of the authors of the original Senate plan.
The money adds about $60 to the base state aid per pupil. It does not include money to compensate property-poor school districts.
The plan does not give local school districts the ability to raise local taxes for general operations or for extra-curricular activities, two proposals that had some general support this year in the Legislature.
The bill would bring about $6.9 million more for Johnson County’s six school districts. It would provide about $2.5 million for Wyandotte County’s four school districts.
The Blue Valley district would get $1.7 million, Shawnee Mission would receive $2 million and Olathe would take in $2.1 million. The Kansas City, Kan. district would get $1.8 million.
Earlier today, House Republicans sharply criticized senators for abandoning a chance to give schools even more money.
They pointed to the Senate’s refusal to go along with a plan to let some schools districts, especially those in Johnson County, to raise property taxes to go toward extra-curricular activities.
The target of the House Republicans was Vratil, the veteran senator from Johnson County.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal said the Senate always takes the high road on protecting children and schools but it was the House that worked to get more money.
O’Neal said Vratil could have gone with the plan to let some district raise property taxes for extra-curricular activities but walked away.
“He would rather set us up for failure in the court than to do the right thing for Kansas,” O’Neal said.
Vratil, the lawyer for the Blue Valley School District, dismissed that notion.
“My constituents and the people of the state of Kansas know of my continued support of K-12 education,” Vratil said. “Misstatements of fact by the House leadership will not change that.”
While he supported the so-called local activities budget, he couldn’t get support from other senators because did didn’t provide compensation for school district with less affluent property tax bases.
Just after the House approved the local-activities budget, Vratil told a reporter that he favored the concept but that the House packaged the plan with several education reforms that the Senate didn’t like.
Those reforms included a plan linking teacher evaluations to student achievement and a couple bills that would direct the courts how to analyze challenges over school finance.
The court bills were intended to help the state defend itself in a court case over school finance that’s expected to begin in a couple weeks.
Vratil opposed the court provisions because he thought they put the Legislature in a position of infringing on the third branch of government. House members thought the measures were a good way of potentially saving the state from a costly judgment over school finance, similar to one handed down seven years ago.
The debate over schools and tax cuts became intermingled during the session.
Late Saturday, Gov. Sam Brownback asked the Senate to agree to revisit a compromise tax plan (and several other things) in exchange for $77 million in education funding.
The Senate rejected that offer, which also asked senators to agree to a some redistricting plans that could potentially benefit conservative a Republicans.
The Senate had not been amenable to the compromise tax plan. Even though, financial forecasts show it largely leaves the state in the black, it assumes 4 percent growth and savings from Medicaid reform that can’t be counted on, senators said.
State Rep. Marc Rhoades, the lead budget negotiator from the House, said the Senate could have got more for schools if it had agreed to the compromise tax plan.
“If we had that other bill, that would have freed up more money to spend,” he said.
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