Statehouse Republicans quickly ruled out another tax increase as part of another attempted fix for Kansas’ school funding formula.
They should have stepped back and taken a deep breath. We believe all avenues should be considered before any are rejected.
That shouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement of a tax increase, simply acknowledgment that legislators face a complex problem.
In kicking the funding formula back to the Legislature for another attempt, the Kansas Supreme Court’s 88-page ruling in the Gannon case again came down to two words: inadequate, inequitable.
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The $485 million lawmakers put to K-12 school funding this year and next wasn’t enough. The court also had problems with the equity part of the formula, which is supposed to make funding similar between the state’s poorer and financially healthier districts.
Critics justifiably wondered what it would take to please the court, because the court disappointingly offers unclear targets. But given that the Legislature is bound by the state constitution to adequately fund education, the court is the overseer and – again – said Kansas came up short.
Reaching another formula now joins a 2018 legislative agenda that includes other funding problems:
▪ A prison system that has been rocked with problems, including retaining corrections officers, skirmishes in at least three facilities, and disruptions that will continue as replacement of the aging Lansing Correctional Facility begins.
▪ A Kansas Bureau of Investigation that is tracking increases in violent crime with a smaller, overworked staff.
Add in other state agencies and programs that have been neglected during the past five years of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment and it makes for the biggest legislative session in years – a recurring title.
Complicating it all? That 2018 is an election year.
If you live in a district represented by someone who voted to override Brownback’s veto of a tax hike in the spring, you no doubt have received a mailer criticizing the lawmaker for the largest tax hike in Kansas history. (Tax rates are still lower than they were in 2011, but OK.)
Immense pressure will be on lawmakers during the next session. The more moderate Republicans who voted to increase taxes will feel pressure not to do it again, fearing challenges from more conservative primary candidates.
It’s where we may see the strength of the moderate Republicans’ resolve, as well as the voters who put them there. We will also get a look at Jeff Colyer’s leadership as he moves from lieutenant governor to governor — months before he’s on the GOP primary ballot.
Colyer and lawmakers realize there are generally only three solutions to provide more funding for schools: raise taxes, cut spending or some combination of both.
Spending cuts should be part of any solution, as long as they’re justifiable and not part of essential programs.
The school-funding formula fix is made more difficult by timing. The state Supreme Court wants a formula from lawmakers by April 30. That would be four months into the legislative session, and at first glance enough time to create a solution.
But lawmakers have been good at putting off work on school funding. It’s not an option anymore, as long as they want to comply with the court’s ruling.
Many Republican lawmakers are understandably frustrated. They achieved a Herculean feat in June by overriding the governor’s veto to raise tax rates. They hoped the weight of the achievement – and $485 million – would be enough for the court.
It wasn’t. The ruling said the money and new formula made strides. More strides are needed now. Lawmakers know there are few ways for finding the hundreds of millions expected to be part of a solution.
No options should be off the table.