TOPEKA — Kansas legislators convened Monday afternoon for the start of their annual session with a number of policy issues expected to make it a difficult spring.
Several legislators said they were glad to be back, but expected a tough ride this session.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, welcomed members back to the House and said he expected the Legislature to continue its leadership approach from last year — trusting the legislative process to yield results.
“This year presents us with an opportunity to continue leading and finding comprehensive solutions that will provide certainty for our state,” Ryckman said. “I’m excited to get to work.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said he loved the first day of session. This year, though, will be “very difficult” because of questions on school finance facing the Legislature. He hoped bipartisanship would rule the day this session.
“Kansas works best when we work together up here,” Ward said. “Really, in my tenure, all good solutions and policies have been a product of bipartisan coalitions, and I hope to re-establish those coalitions this year as we work through school finance.”
Ward said he feared the Legislature could “lose progress” made last year on working across the aisle because of election-year partisanship.
Ryckman, Ward and other lawmakers expected a long road ahead as they work to solve the state’s school funding problems. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled legislators’ school funding plan unconstitutional in October and gave them until April 30 to fix it.
Ryckman said school finance and balancing the state budget would be the biggest challenges for lawmakers. He has previously expressed concern an increase in funds for K-12 will make it difficult to address other essential areas of the state’s tight budget, such as mental health and child welfare.
The state’s attorneys would like to see a plan passed by March 1, which legislators have said may not be possible. Others have expressed opposition to the court ruling or cast doubt on their ability to fund K-12 schools to the liking of the plaintiff school districts’ attorneys — another $600 million each year.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has said she expects the session to be the most difficult of her tenure.
“This is going to be a very difficult session,” she said. “Six-hundred million is an awful lot of money, and the demands in this ruling are very far-reaching, and they’re putting the hammer down and saying, ‘Do it now.’ It’s going to be, I believe, the most difficult session I’ve ever served in.”
After an interim committee gathered information on school finance and a group of legislative leaders hired attorneys and expert witnesses, it is unclear where legislators may land on the issue.
Gov. Sam Brownback also welcomed the Legislature back with a tweet Monday morning.
Brownback will give his annual State of the State address Tuesday evening, addressing the court’s opinion on school finance and talking about “hopes and dreams.” The traditional speech comes after Brownback drew criticism for handing over key responsibilities to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer while waiting to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a federal job.