The Kansas Legislature returned Wednesday to wrap up its session, but whether the session is actually over is hazy because of in-fighting among the Republican leadership, said area legislators.
“Nobody knows,” said Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, of the ending. “Everybody’s speculating.”
One thing that is clear is the Legislature likely won’t meet the self-imposed deadline of 80 days to complete the session. The 80th day is Monday. A normal session is 90 days and the Legislature has gone beyond that before, including last year’s session of 99 days.
The 80-days goal, which was set by Republican leadership, wouldn’t be met due to Republican debate over tax plans.
The issue involves the sales tax, which is set to decrease to 5.7 percent on July 1. The House maintains this should be done, while Gov. Sam Brownback and the Senate expressed the desire to keep the sales tax at 6.3 percent.
This debate ties into higher education funding. There are three current options to be considered related to higher education, none of them advocating a funding increase.
Brownback is recommending funding remain the same for fiscal year 2014. In the Senate’s version of the budget, higher education is cut by 2 percent. In the House’s budget, the cut is 4 percent.
This could mean a cut of up to $6.7 million for K-State, depending on the agreement reached during conference committee meetings. These meetings have been held up because of the lack of movement with the tax discussion, however.
Rep. Tom Phillips, R-Manhattan, said the Senate won’t discuss the budget until the House addresses the sales tax. He said this is in the hands of Brownback, Senate president Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Speaker of the House Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell.
“Until those three identify the direction we move in, I’ll be working in my office on issues related to my district,” he said. “It could go past 90 days. I hope not, but it’s a possibility.”
Phillips, who has maintained the tax cuts are too drastic, said he is siding with Brownback and the Senate’s position. “Given the reality of where we’re at today and the lack of desire to review the tax package from last year, I’m in agreement with extending the sixth-tenths sales tax,” Phillips said.
Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, said she thinks higher education cuts are likely, considering what the budgets currently contain. “The governor is talking about renewing the sales tax, but there’s not anything right now saying we’ll increase the budget for the Regents,” she said.
The Legislature also has to deal with the possible fate of National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in the last days of the session.
During the state legislative break in April, President Barack Obama proposed $714 million for NBAF in his fiscal year 2014 budget while requiring Kansas to provide an additional $202 million in bonds.
The state committed $105 million in bonds in 2008, but the price tag of the project has escalated from $650 million to more than $1 billion.
“If we don’t provide this, there’s a strong possibility NBAF won’t be done, in my opinion,” Hawk said.
The path to the additional NBAF funds seems to be clearer after House and Senate committees this past week approved authorizing of bonds, moving the issue to the full Legislature.
Carlin is on the House Appropriations Committee, which gave the OK to proceed. She said she, Hawk, Phillips met with Landon Fulmer, Brownback’s chief of staff, during the week to help with the information process.
The local delegation said this was necessary according to concerns expressed by some legislators.
“They had to slow down and visit with legislators,” Phillips said of the administration. “What I’m hearing is people don’t want NBAF to be stopped.”
The local legislators said part of the issue could be attributed to the new legislators who weren’t aware of the project’s history, including the commitment to provide 20 percent of the project’s funding.
“We have a lot of new legislators and many of them didn’t know about NBAF at all,” Carlin said.
Other legislators were concerned about whether the federal government would follow through with its promise of $714 million should the state make the agreement.
Both the House and Senate versions of the NBAF bond authorization include a provision that the bonds would be released until the contracts had been signed for the construction project, which would ensure the arrival of the facility.
The three legislators expressed a desire to increase the base state aid per pupil funding but had uncertainty about how likely that would be.
The House budget proposal keeps per-pupil funding flat at $3,838 for fiscal year 2014. The proposed Senate budget adds $14 to per-pupil funding, which is dependent upon transferring the cost of school transportation services — $96.6 million — to the state transportation department.
Hawk said this doesn’t adequately fund K-12 education, but it could provide something. “Although I don’t think that’s a long-term solution,” he said.
The House representatives didn’t express the same hope. “As far as I’m aware, there aren’t going to be any changes at this point,” Phillips said.
Regardless of the eventual decision, it still won’t meet the per-pupil minimum of $4,492, which legislators set as the amount to be reached by the 2009-10 school year in the aftermath of a 2006 school funding lawsuit. The base state aid per pupil reached as high as $4,400 in 2009 before the recession started a downturn to a low of $3,780 in 2011-12.
A new lawsuit is awaiting the Kansas Supreme Court after a January ruling from the Shawnee County District Court that claimed the state must boost its base aid per pupil to $4,492. In this news suit, four school districts have joined together to sue the state for inadequate funding.
“We still have an obligation to talk about school finance, but we’re probably not going to,” Carlin said.