TOPEKA — Senate GOP leadership prolonged an exhaustive debate on school finance in the final hours of the regular session, bewailing the likelihood of a future tax increase and portraying the looming vote as a choice to sacrifice all other state services in favor of education.
They couldn't stop the momentum behind a plan to phase in an increase of more than $500 million in annual public school funding, but Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, preached of a financial reckoning two years from now and compared the surge in spending to 2012 tax cuts that proved to be a disaster for the state's budget.
The solution, for former budget director Duane Goossen, relies on a complete reversal of the supply-side tax experiment spearheaded by former Gov. Sam Brownback with support from Wagle and Denning.
Last year, the Legislature partially reversed those tax cuts to pay for a school funding increase of nearly $300 million, which wasn't enough to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court. Facing an April 30 deadline to defend a new plan to the court, lawmakers passed legislation this weekend with the minimum votes needed in both the House and Senate.
"So we go back to court," Wagle said. "This bill’s not going to satisfy the plaintiffs. But the sad story’s going to be that not all the organizations that we fund — the jails, (child services), our Medicaid payments, everything we do for mental health — they don’t go before the court to find out if the money that we appropriate is constitutional. They don’t have that right. Only the schools do.
"So the court listens to what the schools have to say. They have absolutely no respect for all the other needs that state government has."
Denning and Rep. Steven Johnson, a Republican from Assaria who introduced the funding plan that ultimately passed, have different budget outlooks. By Johnson's calculations, the excess revenue generated by last year's tax change will help offset the escalating costs of education. His forecast assumes continued economic growth and passage of a bill that would force online retailers to collect state sales tax.
"I think my assumptions are quite possible," Johnson said.
Goossen, now a senior fellow with the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, was the budget director for Republican Gov. Bill Graves and retained by Democrats Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson. He said the internet sales tax bill would be a big help and also advocated for raising the gas tax to support a highway fund depleted by annual sweeps to cover losses tied to the 2012 tax cuts.
To pay for school finance and other needs, Goossen said, the Legislature needs to completely erase Brownback's economic policy.
"Reversing the 2012 tax cuts took Kansas out of crisis and put us in a position where we can start to work back toward a healthy financial position," he said. "We’re not there yet."
Denning cast the decisive vote a year ago when the Legislature raised taxes by overriding a Brownback veto.
"It was a very difficult decision," Denning said. "It was the right decision at the time. And when we left here, we had funded $300 million into schools. We had structurally balanced the budget, and everybody felt pretty good about the work we had done.”
The vote turned out to be a terrible mistake, he said, because the high court's mandate to further increase public school funding places the budget in precarious position.
"We’re going to make exactly two school payments on time, and we’re going to miss the third one," Denning said. "We’re making the same mistake we did when we adopted the tax policy, which I voted for, that went too deep, too quick.”
Wagle wanted to know which tax her colleagues plan to increase to avoid ongoing damage to other needs.
"We’re still in the hole," Wagle said. "We’re still borrowing. And now we have before us a bill that once again we know we can’t afford and we know — we absolutely know — if we’re going to pay this bill, we’re going to have to increase taxes.”
Democrats accused Wagle of being a hypocrite for embracing reduced revenue through a massive tax reform bill passed by the Senate before considering the school finance debate.
"The choices made in this room have crippled the education of our students and the livelihood of our teachers," said Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita. "Our decisions and our conversation should be about student success and the financial resources we need, rather than political posturing. Poor financial decisions by this body, made during a financial depression and made worse by an irresponsible tax policy, are responsible for lost opportunity. This body is responsible for making that wrong right."
Earlier in the week, Wagle and Denning delayed the school finance debate for two days. In order to pass a bill with much lower funding than the House, Wagle called GOP committee leaders, whose positions she can reassign, into her office to wrangle their support.
On Saturday, GOP senators filibustered until the final minute before the House accepted a resolution to keep the session alive past midnight.
Rep. Tim Hodge, a Democrat from North Newton, said Wagle and Denning's tactics were "disgraceful and unacceptable."
"I hope the voters wake up and see the reason why we don't have decent things in this state — like health insurance for everybody, like lower sales tax on food, like schools, like good roads — the reason why we don't have those things is because the majority party runs the agenda and doesn't let those things come to the floor in a timely fashion," Hodge said. "Look at this. We're doing education at midnight-30 when we've known what this was supposed to be like since October. That's our problem."