“Is there anything rosy?” Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, asked. “How can there be?”
Monday is the start of what could be a turbulent legislative session, according to area legislators.
At the heart of the matter is an awaited ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court on a school funding lawsuit.
The court is deciding whether to uphold a lower court’s decision that required the state to increase its base aid per pupil from $3,838 to $4,492.
The base aid per pupil is supposed to be increased to $3,852 in fiscal year 2015.
The legislature intended to reach $4,492 by the 2009-10 school year following the Kansas Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that the state funded education inadequately.
The legislators projected the state could pay anywhere from $400 to $600 million if the court rules in favor of the schools. The decision is expected this month.
“Traditionally whenever we’ve had a situation like this, the court has ruled on it either before or right as the session started, so the legislature has an opportunity to correct it,” Hawk said.
Rep. Tom Phillips, R-Manhattan, said he’s entering the session with “trepidation” because of uncertainty about the Supreme Court ruling.
“If they come in and say you need to fund K-12 education to the tune of $450 million or somewhere in that range, that’s basically going to deplete last year’s carryover of $600 million,” he said.
Republican leaders including the house speaker and the senate president have made the suggestion that the legislature might not follow the court’s decision should it rule against the state.
“They can thumb their nose at it, but it’s not very smart,” Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, said.
Hawk and Phillips both referred to this potential situation as a “constitutional crisis.”
Phillips said people are frustrated by the federal government’s dysfunction, and he doesn’t want to see the same in Kansas.
“I hope cooler heads prevail, and we don’t come to a showdown with the Kansas Supreme Court,” he said. “There needs to be leadership shown from the governor’s office.”
Rep. Vern Swanson, R-Clay Center, said increased funding for schools is needed.
“They’ve gone to the bare bones on a lot of issues,” he said.
Phillips said the legislature needs to start restoring funding cuts now to prove to the public and court system that the legislature will fulfill its duty as revenues increase.
Carlin said the state could try to spread out the payments, similar to what it attempted to do after the 2005 decision.
Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, said an extension would be a good course of action in the event the “extreme hardship” was put on the state.
“That’s really the only way we going to be able to comply is if we have a delay and we build up the funds to do that,” he said.
Carlin said it’s likely there will be attempts to change the funding formula to avoid paying the amount that would be required by a court decision.
Brownback unveiled a new school finance formula proposal in 2012, but it never reached the House or Senate for a full vote.
Highland, who is on the education committee, said there’s no confirmation on a reexamination of the funding formula, but he said it could be a good thing.
He said school districts aren’t getting the same opportunities through the current formula.
“If (the court) see we’re doing that, they may say, ‘Let them take care of their own house, as it should be,’” Highland said.
AFTER PASSING a two-year budget last year, none of the area legislators —including Carlin, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee — seemed sure about how financial discussions would proceed.
She said the FY15 budget is unrealistic and unbalanced and doesn’t include many additions that Gov. Sam Brownback said he wanted.
These additions to the budget include all-day kindergarten, working the FY15 corrections budget and restoring higher education funding.
The budget passed by the legislature in June reduced higher education funding by $66 million in FY14 and FY15 through a 1.5-percent across-the-board cut for each year and a cap on salary expenses.
Gov. Sam Brownback stated his desire for funding to remain flat last year, but the legislature ultimately voted on the two-year cuts.
After the session, members of the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committees conducted a legislative tour of higher education institutions.
Carlin said she didn’t hear strong support for funding increases from lawmakers during the tour.
“I’m not sure we convinced the vocal majority that keeps wanting to cut things,” she said.
Swanson said he could envision a compromise being made.
“Let’s work together and find a common ground between those who want to continue (cuts) and those who don’t,” he said.
TAX DISCUSSIONS contributed to last year’s session lasting 99 days.
The legislature approved a plan to increase tax revenue by $777 million over five years as a way to make up for the revenue shortfall associated with the plan to reduce income taxes passed in 2012.
The plan gradually cuts income taxes from 2014 to 2018 with the top income tax rate going from 4.9 percent to 3.9 percent, and the bottom rate going from 3 percent to 2.3 percent.
Phillips said he thinks any discussion of the tax policy this year will likely be off the table.
House Taxation Committee Chairman Richard Carlson, R-St. Marys, has stated his intent to watch how the policy unfolds this year.
Swanson said he didn’t agree with this approach.
“That has to be looked at and has to be considered if indeed we’re faced with that Supreme Court decision to put more money in the schools,” he said.
If the decision is based on politics, Hawk said a reexamination of the tax plan isn’t likely.
“But practically, I don’t see that there are any other solutions unless we go back in look at that,” he said.
Hawk said the state is still being affected by the “highly irresponsible and unjustified” reductions of income taxes over the last two sessions.
“There’s not enough revenue to fund state government adequately,” he said, calling it an “impossible financial situation.”
Highland said the legislature will get first-quarter reports before the session ends, which will give legislators a good view on revenues.
“If they are in fact going down, that will be more pressure to take another look at them,” he said.
Carlin said the plan needs to be a topic of discussion, but the GOP sets the agenda.
“My party will have its own attempts at legislation,” she said. “Whether they are successful in bringing those to a committee remains to be seen.”
Highland said rural areas are struggling and likely couldn’t take additional taxes.
“You go out to the rural areas, and you really see how difficult the times are becoming,” he said. “To increase their taxes at this time, if I voted for that, I’d be in trouble with my constituents and rightfully so.”
IT’S UNCLEAR how far the legislature might get with talks of Medicaid expansion during this session after the state didn’t take any action on the issue last year.
The Affordable Care Act includes a provision that allows states to expand Medicaid eligibility to people below 138 percent of the federal poverty line.
The federal government would pay 100 percent of the costs for newly eligible people from 2014 to 2016.
Funding would decrease after that until the federal government covers 90 percent in 2020, which would be the funding level in subsequent years.
“I would question the governor’s wisdom in not accepting the federal government’s offer,” Swanson said. “But there are brighter people than me in the statehouse.”
Highland said some legislators are uncertain about whether the federal support would continue to be there.
“If they would change courses in mid-stream, we would lose all that support,” he said.
Phillips said it’s hard to tell if Brownback will push Medicaid expansion.
“But it’s a critical issue to the state of Kansas, particularly to the hospitals,” he said.
Phillips said the National Hospital Association agreed to cuts in reimbursement rates with the assumption that all states would vote to increase Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Carlin said Kansas residents shouldn’t be penalized from getting the services that could be provided Medicaid expansion would be a tremendous boost to Kansas.
“It shouldn’t be ‘If you’re in Kansas, you’re out of luck,’” she said. “Why should Kansans just be out of luck when our neighboring states decided to accept that funding?”