Kansas Leaders Seek Path Forward After School Finance Ruling; Play Blame Game

By John Celock

Kansas political leaders are pledging to move forward with fulfilling the school finance ruling while also playing the blame game.

In a series of press conferences and statements, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and other leaders Friday said they would work to fulfill the state Supreme Court’s ruling that more equity is needed in the state’s funding of capital payments for schools and state general supplemental aid. At the same time, Brownback did seek to cast blame with his Democratic predecessor, Mark Parkinson, and previous legislative leaders for cuts to state school aid that caused the lawsuit. Brownback’s Democratic opponent in this year’s gubernatorial election, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence) is instead casting blame with Brownback and his legislative allies, saying that they did not implement a Democratic plan to avert the lawsuit.

“We have an opportunity for progress,” Brownback said in a statement. “My commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court. We will fix this.”

Brownback and legislative leaders stressed that lawmakers will work to address the court ruling by the July 1 deadline. This includes providing $129 million to bring equity to the capital outlay and state general supplemental aid. State Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R) though argued at the press conference with Brownback that the $129 million is not “a solid number.”

The $129 million to achieve the equity mandated by the court decision was determined by Deputy State Education Commissioner Dale Dennis Friday morning after reading the decision.

The full court decision can be read here.

The Supreme Court decision is the latest in a series of court rulings on school finance that have upended Kansas politics. Friday’s decision came as a split ruling that included ordering a state District Court to review adequacy in school funding. The Supreme Court said that the District Court’s previous ruling on adequacy in school finance did not use an appropriate test.

Under the ruling, if state lawmakers do not “fully fund” the capital outlay program and the supplemental aid program by July 1, the District Court can step in.

Davis, who has held a narrow lead over Brownback in recent polls, argued that the state’s school finance formula is not at issue but rather the state not funding the program. He also argued that Democrats have put forward a plan to fund schools and that Republicans have not agreed to these plans and were more interested in cutting taxes.

Davis spokeswoman Haley Pollock took to Twitter Friday afternoon to note that page 91 of the court ruling did cite cuts made by Brownback. The same paragraph also noted the cuts made in 2009 by lawmakers and Parkinson.

Friday’s dueling arguments from Brownback and Davis continue a war of words that has dominated Kansas politics in recent years. Brownback has pushed a series of tax cuts and battled moderate Republicans, who controlled the state Senate along with Democrats to achieve the cuts. Brownback has argued the cuts would be needed to grow the economy in the state.

At least one Republican state lawmaker is questioning how the funds will be found to fund the $129 million mandate. State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report that the money will either have to come from a tax hike or from cuts to other parts of the budget. He said he would be against a tax hike because it would do more harm to the state’s economy. He touted that the income tax cuts from Brownback have helped bring jobs to the state.

Claeys said the top concern should be to have a quality public school system that educates Kansas children who then want to stay in Kansas due to a strong economy.

“We can’t have that continue. We are finally reversing that trend,” Claeys said of students seeking to leave the state. “I don’t see the tax policy changing. I do see us looking at the ending balance.”

Claeys said that lawmakers will likely have to make budget cuts to fund the court ruling instead of raising taxes. He said while the budget ending balance will offset some cuts, he said they could happen. State transportation and higher education programs could face cuts, Claeys warned.

“Do I want to do that? No, but a court is ordering me to do that,” Claeys said of potential transportation and higher education cuts.