Originally published by Kansas Reflector on March 18, 2021:
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly responded with contempt to a feeling of deja vu after the Kansas Senate voted to rely on federal COVID-19 funding rather than Kansas tax dollars to cover as much as $568 million in public education obligations in a proposed two-year state budget.
The Republican-controlled Senate wants to explore opportunities to earmark COVID-19 assistance to cover the state’s obligations to Kansas for public education, but not make a final decision until May. Passage of Senate Bill 267 signaled the Senate would delay final K-12 budget decisions a couple months to seek clarity on the state’s tax revenue picture and to await guidance from the federal government on spending pandemic aid funneled into the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.
“If Senate Bill 267 becomes law it would cut funding for Kansas public schools by more than half a billion dollars,” Kelly said. “The last thing Kansas needs — just as our teachers are vaccinated and our kids are returning to in-person learning — is to sabotage our education system by subverting critical COVID recovery funds.”
Kelly, a Democrat, was serving in the Kansas Senate during a national recession more than a decade ago when temporary federal stimulus money was rolled into Kansas’ education budget to free state tax dollars for other purposes. The move offered immediate relief from budget pressures, but reliance on one-time money eventually meant the state faced a budgetary reckoning.
The Legislature dealt with its post-recession budget problems by abandoning school-funding promises and passing aggressive income tax cuts embraced by then-Gov. Sam Brownback. The inevitable lawsuit filed by public school districts led to intervention by the Kansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the Legislature’s constitutional duty to suitably finance K-12 public schools. The Supreme Court retained jurisdiction over the latest lawsuit in anticipation legislators might again fail to complete a muli-year plan to improve funding of public education. Much of the Brownback tax program was repealed in 2017.
“I promised when I became governor that Kansas would not make the mistakes of the past, and that we would fulfill our constitutional obligation to fully fund our public schools, and I will keep that promise,” Kelly said.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 24-13 to send a two-year budget bill to the House. GOP senators defended the decision to shoehorn CARES Act money into the state’s K-12 budget — $236 million in the fiscal year starting July 1 and $332 million in the subsequent fiscal year.
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said objections to the Senate bill were a “red herring” and “scare tactic” because nothing about the state government’s budget had been set in stone. He said the Senate’s approach did have a “chicken-and-egg” feel, but did nothing to jeopardize K-12 aid designed specifically to address academic inequities across the state. The prudent decision is to wait for more information about appropriation of the COVID-19 relief targeting the nation’s schools, he said.
Masterson rejected a proposal by Democrats to put state general fund dollars into K-12 now and leave open the option of replacing that money with federal aid if permitted.
“This would be akin to committing to pay a bill that you don’t know that you need,” Masterson said. “We want more information. That’s never a bad thing. It would be unwise to handcuff ourselves to something.”
Masterson said the state’s experience after the Great Recession should convince lawmakers of the prudence in banking state general fund dollars for the day when COVID-19 relief ended. At that point, the GOP senator said, the state could need financial reserves to confront a type of financial cliff.
“By saying we’re going to use these federal dollars, which are one-time dollars, that is setting a cliff,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa.
Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, said the Kansas Department of Education concluded federal coronavirus aid to schools couldn’t be used to replace state tax dollars for K-12 schools. He said the department believes the federal aid in question must be spent on costs directly tied to the pandemic.
He said it would be better to set COVID-19 money aside and plug state tax dollars into the K-12 budget until more was known about expenditure options. He also pointed to the Senate’s passage of Senate Bill 22 slashing state taxes by an estimated $478 million, which wasn’t accounted for when Senate Republicans cobbled together the two-year budget plan because it could eventually lead the state to a $78 million deficit.
“This is not a sustainable budget for the resources we have beyond the one-time money,” Hawk said. “This really puts us, in my mind, in a difficult position.”
Sen. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said advocates of swapping state tax dollars for federal relief funding in the budget weren’t walking away from promises to invest in the quest to close achievement gaps among low-income and minority students in public schools.
The approach doesn’t signal abandonment of a six-year strategy to close funding inadequacies affirmed by the Supreme Court, he said.
“I fully believe that we’re going to fund them,” Billinger said. “We need to fund them. It’s just how we do that and when. We want to utilize all available federal funds. It’s prudent on our part to try to look at avenues that help fill in the state general fund.”
Overall, the Senate budget plan would spend $56 million more than recommended by the governor. That inspired Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, to propose a 3% cut in budgets not related to K-12 education, public safety and obligations to Medicaid recipients. He said the proposal would reduce expenditures by about $60 million. The GOP-led chamber rejected his amendment 14-19.
Hilderbrand said it was “really ironic and, I’m sorry, just downright comical” that the 31 senators not on the Ways and Means Committee were repeatedly thwarted from advancing budget amendments on the Senate floor. The full Senate is the proper venue despite the view of those running the Senate’s budget committee, he said.
“Sooner or later that sledgehammer will fall,” Hilderbrand said. “It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt bad. We’re not being fiscally responsible.”
Sykes, the Democratic leader in the Senate, offered this closing thought: “We cannot pay for tax cuts for giant multinational corporations, keep the lights on and keep our state running, and operate with a positive balance under this proposed budget. Furthermore, this budget punts our constitutional obligation to fund our schools. One-time federal funds during a pandemic do not a finance formula make.”
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