Government & Politics

Kansas Senate passes school funding plan after GOP leader apologizes

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, apologized for holding up a debate over school funding.
Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, apologized for holding up a debate over school funding. File photo

The Kansas Senate approved a school funding increase of more than $250 million on Thursday, after a leading Republican apologized for blocking debate over the past two days.

Senators voted 21-18 to pass the plan, setting the stage for negotiations on a final bill after the House passed a plan roughly double the Senate's amount.

The bill passed only after the Senate used a procedural tactic to force lawmakers to cast votes. Several senators initially passed on voting and multiple senators flipped their votes. One senator changed her vote twice.

Negotiations between the House and Senate could potentially begin Friday. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the lawmakers who will develop a final bill will likely set funding levels higher than in the Senate plan.

The Senate plan, SB 423, adds upward of $250 million over five years. The House plan, HB 2445, adds more than $500 million over the same period.

The Kansas Supreme Court has given lawmakers until April 30 to provide a plan to adequately fund schools. The court ruled last fall that schools are inadequately funded in violation of the state constitution.

Before the debate began, Denning apologized to Republican senators for previously blocking a school funding debate.

“I know I lost a lot of credibility. I’ll try to get that back,” he said.

He emphasized that he had made the decision to block debate as a favor to House Speaker Ron Ryckman as he sought votes for a constitutional amendment that would restrict future lawsuits over school funding. Ryckman has said the House won’t debate an amendment this week.

Denning also said that Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, had gone along with his position.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who spearheaded the development of the Senate plan, said the legislation contained targeted funding for programs designed to help at-risk students. The Supreme Court has expressed concern over the quarter of Kansas students who are underperforming academically.

She acknowledged lawmakers won’t provide the $1 billion or more than the plaintiff districts want. Still, supporters said the funding amount is adequate.

“We’re talking about education funding and I get it. We’re not talking about construction, we’re not talking about law enforcement, we’re not talking about healthcare and we’re not talking about all these other things,” Baumgardner said.

“But what we do with education funding impacts what is going to happen to the moms and the dads out there that have jobs. They’re trying to pay their taxes.”

Some Republicans say Kansas can’t afford to substantially increase school funding without tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere. They have opposed the House and Senate plans, along with some Democrats who have said the plans don’t offer enough funding.

A study commissioned by legislative leaders recommended up to $2 billion in new funding for schools over five years. Lawmakers largely chafed at that figure, and some said the educational goals in the study were too high.

For example, the study used a 95 percent high school graduation rate statewide in estimating how much funding Kansas needs. But no state has ever achieved a 95 percent rate; Kansas’ rate is currently around 86 percent.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said that if reasonable educational aspirations are used, school funding is already adequate.

“Quite frankly, the Senate’s too high,” Masterson said of the funding in the bill, though he also said the position is reasonable as lawmakers go into negotiations.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, questioned how senators came up with the funding amounts included in the bill. He contended it’s not enough.

“I think they’re woefully short,” Holland said.

Wagle gathered senators who chair committees in her office ahead of the debate. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, suggested Wagle had threatened to strip chairs of their assignments if they voted against the plan.

Asked if she had indicated chairs could lose their positions, Wagle didn't deny that she had done so. She said had private talks to discuss the importance of the bill.

"I felt like in order to keep a Republican majority in the Kansas Senate through the next election that we need to make sure we don't force ourselves into another tax increase," Wagle said, summing up what she had conveyed to senators.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said "there was a plea to help them move the process forward."

When the vote came, bill supporters initially came up short after several senators would not vote. The Senate used a procedural tactic to force senators to take a side.

Over about 30 minutes, several senators flipped from no to yes. Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, changed her vote twice, ending as a no vote.

Senators waited for Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, to come to the chamber to vote. Wagle said he was an hour away, and he never arrived.