Kansas faces new budget woes amid school funding fight

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Nickerson, speaks with reporters during a break in the chamber's session with lawmakers trying to decide whether to tackle a school funding bill, Wednesday, June 1, 2016, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The state Supreme Court has rejected some education funding changes made by lawmakers earlier in the year. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators wrangled on the final day of their annual session Wednesday over whether to comply with a court-ordered increase in aid to poor school districts amid fresh evidence of the state’s deteriorating financial condition.

Leaders of the Legislature’s GOP supermajorities considered whether to debate a school finance bill before lawmakers formally adjourned their annual session Wednesday. But they backed off after a meeting of Republican senators showed there was no consensus on what to do.

The state Supreme Court on Friday rejected some education funding changes enacted earlier this year by Republican legislators. The justices said the school finance system remains unfair to poor school districts and warned lawmakers that public schools will be unable to open after June 30 if lawmakers don’t act by then.

A few GOP senators wanted to pass a bill Wednesday to boost aid to poor school districts. Others wanted more time to draft a response, something that would require Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to call a special session later this month. Another group wanted to defy the justices and test whether the court really would declare that schools must remain closed.

Brownback wouldn’t say Wednesday evening whether he will call a special session. He issued a statement promising to work with legislators and the state’s attorney general to respond “aggressively” to any action by the court to close schools.

“The courts should not be playing politics with our children’s education,” Brownback said.

Just after adjourning, lawmakers got more bad news about state revenues. The Department of Revenue reported that tax collections in May fell $74.5 million short of expectations, a 13.7 percent shortfall.

The shortfall in monthly tax collections means the state may have to delay paying some of its bills or take other steps to avoid a budget deficit at the end of this month. GOP lawmakers also said it means there’s no extra money for schools, unless other parts of the budget are cut.

“We need to fight the courts,” said Republican Sen. Rob Olson. “They’ve crossed the line.”

Tax collections have fallen short of expectations in 10 of the past 12 months. Brownback last month cut higher education spending and money for Medicaid health coverage for the needy, disabled and elderly.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes at Brownback’s urging in 2012 and 2013 in an effort to stimulate the economy.

But Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan said in a statement Wednesday that the state economy continues to suffer because of slumps in agriculture, aircraft manufacturing and energy production hurting the entire region.

Similar budget problems shadowed a debate over school funding earlier this year. Republicans rewrote school finance laws in March in hopes of satisfying a Supreme Court order in February that poor schools weren’t getting their fair share of more than $4 billion in annual aid to the state’s 286 local districts.

Lawmakers also faced political pressure against cutting aid to wealthy districts while helping poor ones. Most districts didn’t see any change in their overall aid — and the state’s overall spending did not increase.

The state Department of Education estimated that complying with the Supreme Court’s latest order would cost between $38 million and $51 million during the 2016-17 school year.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, of Emporia, advised fellow GOP lawmakers to pass a bill Wednesday and “move on down the road,” and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said lawmakers should have provided extra funds to schools to satisfy the court.

But Republican Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe Republican, said for many GOP legislators, “You hold a gun to our heads, we’re going to say, ‘Go ahead and make my day.'”

 

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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