Early Sunday morning the Kansas Legislature passed a $522 million increased state investment in public school funding, phased in over five years. The funding plan is based largely on one originally passed by the House and is nearly twice as large as the Senate’s earlier proposal. Gov. Colyer quickly said he intends to sign the bill.

The Kansas Constitution limits legislative sessions to 90 calendar days in even-numbered years unless both chambers pass a resolution, with a two-thirds majority in each chamber, to extend. Saturday, the 90th day of the 2018 regular session, there was a long delay because the Senate spent most of its day avoiding discussion of school finance. Instead, a tax bill was debated that claimed to prevent our state from reaping a windfall as an indirect result of recent changes in the federal tax code. The bill was a priority for some senators who worried that there would be an inadvertent tax increase at the state level without Legislature approval.

Under the tax bill HB 2228, the standard income tax deduction in Kansas would be increased from the current $3,000 to $3,750 for individuals, $5,500 to $6,875 for heads of household and $7,500 to $9,375 for married taxpayers filing jointly. The Senate rejected an amendment to raise the standard deductions by 33 percent. The bill would allow a Kansas taxpayer to itemize deductions even if he/she does not itemize on federal taxes. The bill also accelerates restoration of itemized deductions on state income taxes. Current state law provides a 50 percent deduction for medical expenses, mortgage interest and property taxes in tax year 2018. The bill would raise the deduction to 75 percent in tax year 2018 and 100 percent in tax year 2020.

Some might note that Kansas, due to legislative and executive fiscal irresponsibility, has been deficit spending for years. Our state has no rainy day or emergency funds, despite a statutory obligation. The leaders have misappropriated tax funds intended for maintenance on highways and criminally neglected mental health funding. Our state prisons are inadequately staffed and underfunded. The state owes KPERS a fortune because it has indebted itself rather than making statutory employer payments. If our state gets a little bit of one-time money because of changes to federal tax law, it should be used to rebuild our state services and economy.

Why did this proposed resolution of an issue that has been known statewide since 2012 come at literally the last minute and necessitate a resolution allowing the session to continue beyond midnight? A three-judge panel ruled in January 2012 that Kansas public schools were unconstitutionally underfunded by $515 million. In March 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to restore cuts that had caused inequity in the financing of school districts but allowed the Legislature more time to work on adequate funding legislation. In 2015, the Kansas State Department of Education reported that public education would be underfunded by about $657 million under the budget signed by the governor that year. While the Legislature passed bills attacking teachers, administrators, curriculum and districts, no progress was made on performing their constitutional duty. In October 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature failed its constitutional duty to adequately and fairly fund school districts. The opinion did not specifically state an amount of funding needed for adequacy. The court said the Legislature caused unfair burdens on some districts’ taxpayers because it allowed expanded use of so-called local option budgets, which allow residents of wealthier school districts to tax themselves to provide educational extras that poorer districts taxpayers cannot afford. The majority of the court agreed to allow the Legislature until April 30, 2018, to pass constitutional funding.

Belatedly, the Kansas Senate leaders commissioned, and we paid $250,000 for, a study to evaluate school funding needs and costs. That study, released a couple of weeks ago, estimated that adequate funding could require between $1.7 billion and $2.1 billion in additional investment. The study estimated that additional funding of $600 million to $650 million would be necessary for public schools to perform the educational expectations outlined in Kansas law. According to the study, it will cost roughly $1.8 billion in additional spending to raise high school graduation rates to 95 percent, a target set by former Gov. Sam Brownback during his final State of the State address. The current graduation rate is about 86 percent. Meanwhile, it would cost almost $2.1 billion to put 60 percent of students on track for college success.  

At 11:59 p.m., with less than 60 seconds remaining before the session would have come to an automatic end (and trigger a special session on school finance), the House and Senate agreed to extend the session. As the Senate tax debate dragged on, many teachers wearing red KNEA T-shirts gathered in the hall outside the Senate, concerned that filibustering on the tax bill might prevent a vote on the school finance bill. Meanwhile, Democrats and some moderate Republicans argued that it was premature to pass a tax cut before lawmakers received updated revenue projections, due later this month.

Early Saturday, Republican leaders in the Senate agreed to allow the House to put the contents of its bill into a Senate bill and send it back to the Senate for a motion to concur with the changes. The new bill passed the House with the bare minimum of votes needed, 63-56. Opponents were a rare mix of conservatives who said it spent too much and Democrats who argued it was not enough. As the House passed the bill, the Senate was debating its tax bill, which some said could reduce revenues the state might otherwise receive over the next five years by an estimated $494 million, nearly as much as the school finance bill would cost.

As the hours passed, the crowd outside the Senate chamber grew larger. They did not have to wait long. The Senate passed SB 423 by a bare necessity vote of 21-19 at around 12:20 a.m. The Legislature is adjourned until April 26. The next question: Will the bill pass Supreme Court review? Stay tuned.

Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.