TOPEKA — Facing a court mandate, running out of time and spurred by a plea from the attorney general, lawmakers negotiated into the night Friday in search of an elusive compromise on a package to boost funding for public schools.
The House and Senate remain far apart in negotiations to bridge the gap between a $525 million plan endorsed by the House and the Senate's $275 million plan. Both would phase in contributions over five years.
"I mean, it’s like the Grand Canyon in terms of the width of differences we have to deal with between the House and the Senate," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
Lawmakers face an April 30 deadline to present an adequate and equitable plan to the Kansas Supreme Court. Without a deal in place, two thirds of both chambers will have to support a vote to extend the session beyond Saturday.
In a letter to legislative leaders, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt reiterated his need to review whatever bill they produce before defending it before the high court.
"I implore you," Schmidt said, "do not adjourn for an April recess without finishing this legislation."
Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican and chairman of the conference committee that is working to resolve differences between House and Senate plans, says he is confident the Legislature can pass a bill without extending the session.
"It would always be nice to have stuff done earlier," Patton said. "We’ll make his deadline."
On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that would phase in a $275 million increase over five years, shifting $68 million away from enrollment weightings to prop up the base aid figure. It also earmarks money for areas of need identified by the Supreme Court.
Earlier in the week, the House passed a plan to add $525 million over five years, accounting for inflation from the last time funding satisfied the court a decade ago.
At the negotiating table Friday afternoon, Patton squared off with Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg. Patton agreed to adopt a host of programs included in the Senate plan. Baumgardner insisted the money to pay for the programs be offset by base state aid to keep the House position at $525 million.
The efforts to support early childhood education, at-risk students and a consolidation incentive would cost about $67 million over the course of five years.
"We appreciate that you like those, that you want to incorporate those as policy programs, if you will," Baumgardner said. "But The Senate position is that really is contingent on your willingness to drop where you are on state aid or state base."
The Senate aims to drive down that figure by taking a hard stance on other differences, including restrictions on local option budgets, mental health spending, transportation and capital improvement caps.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, urged Democratic representatives not to vote on a late-night deal on K-12 funding thrust into their lap. The imperative, he said, was a plan that serves the long-term interests of children and complies with the Supreme Court order.
"I think we should hold our cards tonight," Ward said. "It's too fluid."
Offers were exchanged in a series of brief meetings followed by closed-door gatherings where party leaders hashed out areas of contention. After four hours of reviewing line-by-line details and staking out territory, they agreed to break at 7 p.m. and return later in the evening.
The two chambers gaveled in at 8 p.m. to consider other business before returning to school finance bargaining. They planned to return to session at 10 a.m. Saturday, but it remained unclear whether a deal could be reached overnight.
Schmidt has said he will defend any plan the Legislature gives him, but his letter underscores the need for urgency.
"When the Legislature's work ends, the State's work begins," Schmidt said. "This is not a simple matter of plugging in the numbers once a final school finance bill becomes law. To the contrary, the numerous and much more complex issues that must be briefed will take considerable time to properly explain."