Government & Politics

Kansas Senate leaders slam brakes on school finance work after House OKs plan

Sen. Denning says it’s too early to vote on school funding

The Senate majority leader says lawmakers need more information.
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The Senate majority leader says lawmakers need more information.

Leading Senate Republicans blocked work on a school finance plan Tuesday, saying senators won't debate education funding until after lawmakers approve a polarizing constitutional amendment.

The vow came hours after the House approved a bill that would pump roughly $500 million more into Kansas schools over five years in an attempt to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court. Republican Senate President Susan Wagle and Majority Leader Jim Denning promptly slammed the plan and refused to move forward on the bill.

"It spends money that we don't have, and they're trying to pay for it with gimmicks," said Denning, R-Overland Park.

"We've been pushed into a corner," said Wagle, R-Wichita. "Kansans can't afford the bill that the House just passed.”

Wagle and Denning are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would “declare the power to appropriate funding for education is exclusively a legislative power and not subject to judicial review.”

Democrats and moderate Republicans quickly struck back at the two senators, accusing them of throwing a temper tantrum. One lawmaker compared the Republican leaders to hostage-takers.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Mission Hills Republican who is against the constitutional change, compared the move to a hostage situation.

"I feel that they are practicing the equivalent of poor parenting, making idle threats and actually attempting to bribe people for what I would call a tyrannical stance," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called Wagle and Denning’s actions irrational. The two Republicans are holding school children hostage by refusing to advance a bill to adequately fund schools, he said.

“Wagle and Denning are acting like school-yard bullies," Hensley said. "This tactic is not going to result in the passage of a constitutional amendment. Instead, it will result in the closure of our state’s schools.

“Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in the Senate Republican caucus to pass an adequate school finance bill before the session adjourns on Friday.”

The Legislature typically takes off much of April. If lawmakers want to begin their break on schedule, they will need to wrap up by the end of the week.

Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer has said he wants lawmakers to send him a school funding plan before they leave.

A House committee held a hearing Tuesday afternoon on the amendment that Wagle and Denning are counting on.

Moderate Republicans would likely need to join with conservatives to pass the constitutional change. But moderates were already saying this week they wouldn’t support it.

"It has no chance to pass," said Sen. Bruce Givens, a moderate El Dorado Republican. "... It's not going to pass, not in our Senate."

Denning said the Senate needed more information before taking up the House school finance bill.

"There's no reason to pass that school finance plan until they get transparent ... and lay down the amount of taxes that are going to be passed on to the constituents or how much of KPERS is going to be cut to pay for the tax plan,” Denning said.

He predicted that the House plan would have "at least a $200 (million) to $300 million deficit in the next budget cycle."

"We've all lived through this budget crisis," Denning said. "And I'm personally not willing to live through another one."

It's not uncommon for one chamber to diminish the importance or validity of the other chamber's work, House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said.

"I'm not overly concerned about that at this point," Hineman said. "We'll work it out."

The plan the House approved on Tuesday would phase in a $500 million increase for K-12 education over five years. Lawmakers passed the bill 71-53 after rejecting it on Monday.

The bill, HB 2445, is the first Republican-supported response to a Kansas Supreme Court decision last fall that lawmakers aren’t adequately funding schools.

Supporters of the House bill think the state budget can absorb the additional spending, assuming that revenue comes in as expected and that they don’t spend significantly more on other parts of government.

Opponents of the plan are split. Some Democrats think that $500 million is not enough and that the state could pay for more. More-conservative Republicans say the current increase is unaffordable and will keep lawmakers from providing additional resources to other parts of government that need it.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said that since the bill failed on Tuesday, lawmakers had more time to look at the numbers in the bill and get comfortable with the figures.

"I think it's a step. Obviously, we've got to see what the Senate thinks about it," Ryckman said.

The blockade announced by Senate GOP leaders provoked different views among House Republicans.

"My fear would be we could be here for quite awhile," Rep. Russ Jennings, a moderate Lakin Republican, said. "You have to have a supermajority in each chamber to have that happen (putting a constitutional amendment before voters) and I think there's a long ways to go. So we could be here a long time."

Another, more conservative Republican welcomed the move.

"Some of us would be willing to pay that price, a high price on the school finance if we can get the constitutional amendment to end this cycle of lawsuits," said Rep. Chuck Weber, a Wichita Republican.

The Supreme Court rejected last year’s school finance fix, and demanded another one, irking some as the state continues to face a lean budget situation even after increasing taxes during the 2017 session.

"All of our work was for nought last year," Denning said.

The constitutional amendment would have to pass both the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority, 84 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate. It would then go to a statewide vote, its fate left to Kansans at the ballot box.

If no Democrats in either chamber vote for the amendment, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol would have to convince their respective caucuses, both divided between moderate and conservative Republicans, to support the historic change.

Republicans can lose only a handful of votes or the amendment’s chances of passing will fall apart.

Tuesday's push for an amendment has its roots with an umbrella group called The Kansas Coalition For Fair Funding. Prominent members include the Kansas Farm Bureau, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Contractors Association.

How they voted

Here’s how Kansas City area lawmakers voted on HB 2445, a Republican plan to increase school spending by $500 million over five years. The bill passed the House 71-53.

Republicans voting yes: Shelee Brim, Shawnee; Stephanie Clayton, Overland Park; Tom Cox, Shawnee; Erin Davis, Olathe; Keith Esau, Olathe; Linda Gallagher, Lenexa; Jan Kessinger, Overland Park; Joy Koesten, Leawood; Patty Markley, Overland Park; Abraham Rafie, Overland Park; John Resman, Olathe; Melissa Rooker, Fairway; Ron Ryckman, Olathe; William Sutton, Gardner; Sean Tarwater, Stilwell

Democrats voting yes: Cindy Holscher, Overland Park; Kathy Wolfe Moore, Kansas City, Kan.

Republicans voting no: Willie Dove, Bonner Springs; Randy Powell, Olathe; Scott Schwab, Olathe; Frank Trimboli, Olathe

Democrats voting no: Tom Burroughs, Kansas City, Kan.; Pam Curtis, Kansas City, Kan.; Stan Frownfelter, Kansas City, Kan.; Broderick Henderson, Kansas City, Kan.; Nancy Lusk, Overland Park; Cindy Neighbor, Shawnee; Jarrod Ousley, Merriam; Brett Parker, Overland Park; Louis Ruiz, Kansas City, Kan.; Jerry Stogsdill, Prairie Village; Valdenia Winn, Kansas City, Kan.

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