Government & Politics

GOP plan to fix Kansas budget implodes amid pressure from educators

The Kansas Capitol in Topeka
The Kansas Capitol in Topeka

Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate thought they had cobbled together enough votes to pass a plan that would help fill Kansas’ budget hole.

But that plan, which would have cut more than $120 million from public schools, imploded Thursday as pressure from education activists mounted.

Once the plan “came to the light of day the emails started, the phone calls started and we started losing votes,” said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican.

The plan — hatched in a series of closed door meetings with GOP lawmakers over the past month — would have included budget cuts for the current fiscal year, which lasts through June. And it would have raised income taxes to put the state on stable footing in the long term. Kansas faces a roughly $1 billion budget shortfall through 2019.

But when the plan fell apart early Thursday, GOP leaders abandoned a scheduled debate and told lawmakers they’ll hold no votes on any other bills until they pass a solution to fill the current year’s budget hole, which stands at around $320 million.

“It’s basically squeeze off your air until you comply,” said Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, compared the situation to being held hostage.

Longbine said he “would prefer not to think of it as punishment. I would prefer to think of it as we have a monumental challenge in front of us and that’s what we need to be focused on.”

The most controversial aspect of the Republican leaders’ plan was a 5 percent cut to K-12 public education meant to get the state through the end of the current fiscal year, before income tax increases could go into effect to stabilize the budget for the following two years.

Education activists hit lawmakers with a barrage of emails, phone calls and social media posts in the face of the proposed $128 million cut to schools and votes on both bills were halted.

“Those who campaigned on no cuts to education may have heard something from their constituents overnight,” said Mark Desetti, legislative director of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

The Kansas governor said late last year that school funding would be the "dominant issue" of the next legislative session.

John Robb, an attorney representing Kansas City, Kan., and three other school districts in a pending lawsuit over school funding, contended that the cut to schools would have been unconstitutional and put the state out of compliance with a requirement for equitable funding.

That’s because districts with higher proportions of low-income students rely on the state for a greater percentage of their total funding than wealthy districts and would have been more adversely impacted, Robb said. He promised to challenge the cut in court if it becomes law.

“I don’t think it’s over yet,” said Robb, who helped lead the effort to organize education advocates against the bill. “Senate leadership is regrouping to see if they can twist arms over the weekend.”

Desetti said that many legislative races last year were determined by where candidates stood on education funding. The prospect of a cut to schools sparked backlash, particularly at moderate Republicans who now have the power to play kingmaker after ousting conservative incumbents.

“It looked more like a (Gov. Sam) Brownback plan than a plan people expected from this new Legislature,” Desetti said.

Desetti pointed to Sen. John Skubal, a freshman Republican from Overland Park who had supported passing the bill out of committee, as someone who had particularly faced backlash for appearing to support the budget bill early on.

Skubal said he had misunderstood the Senate rules and believed the cut to education could have been negotiated on the Senate floor. However, the Legislature’s “pay-go” rule prevents increases to spending in a budget bill unless a lawmaker provides a cut to offset it somewhere else in the budget.

“Here’s how naive I am, I thought that once we got this to the Senate floor, we could negotiate the number down,” Skubal said. “But apparently the number was the number. Well, when that started happening I kind of fell apart...I’ve never been through a debate on the Senate floor, and this is probably the most important vote that we’re going to take and I don’t even know what to do.”

Harrison Hems, the chief of staff for Senate President Susan Wagle, said GOP leaders weighed a 3 percent cut as an alternative to help sway faltering moderates but they began to lose conservative votes after that.

Hems said the vote was called off because leadership didn’t want to waste time on a proposal that wouldn’t get 21 votes, the minimum majority to pass a bill in the Senate.

“We’ve got 31 Republicans. We want consensus, not just with 21, but with a strong message that this is how our caucus wants to fix it,” Hems said.

A faction of hard-line conservatives is unlikely to support any package that includes a tax increase.

“It stinks. It still stinks,” said Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican who brought stink bait onto the Senate floor during a 2015 debate to demonstrate his displeasure with a tax bill. 

Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, said that no lawmaker is happy with the situation but that schools need to be realistic about the state’s finances.

“I just think the schools need to be careful going forward how much they expect,” Lynn said. “And I think that given the reality of the situation that everybody’s going to have to bend. Everybody. And everything is on the table.”

Brownback opposed the Senate GOP plan. He has favored tapping the state’s $360 million long-term investment fund to get the state through the current fiscal year without deep cuts and paying it back over a period of seven years, a move some lawmakers have compared to a payday loan.

Asked about the collapse of the Senate plan, Brownback said that he has been primarily working with House leadership.

“You know how this works. It takes 100 different iterations,” Brownback said.

Democrats, who rarely agree with Brownback on budget issues, also support tapping those funds to get the state through the current fiscal year. For the following years, they’ve offered an alternative tax plan that would include the creation of a third income tax bracket.

Bollier said she believes there were enough votes to pass the Democrats’ plan if lawmakers had held a floor debate Thursday, but that Republican leaders opposed the idea of partnering with Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said that he confronted Longbine about this Thursday and told him that Republicans need Democratic votes to avoid a veto from the governor on the tax plan.

“I just said, ‘Do the math. Do the math, Jeff,’ ” Hensley said.

Hensley criticized Republican leaders for trying to craft a plan through closed-door meetings rather than through public hearings. He said he hopes Thursday’s meltdown will embolden the moderates to work with Democrats.

“We’ll just have to see whether these moderates will step up,” he said.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3