OVERLAND PARK — Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman senses deja vu in a new struggle to find cash to meet the state’s basic financial obligations and respond to demands for greater investment in public education, mental health, computer security and disability services.
The Olathe Republican, chosen by peers in 2016 to lead the House, hears frustration in the voice of Kansans unhappy the 2017 Legislature overrode Gov. Sam Brownback to implement a two-year, $1.2 billion increase in income taxes. And, Ryckman can look out south-facing windows at the Capitol toward the Kansas Supreme Court, which again ruled the state’s K-12 funding system to be unconstitutional. That October ruling followed action by the Legislature to raise state aid to schools by $195 million.
Ryckman said a remedy to the K-12 funding dispute could cost taxpayers as much as $600 million. That size crater in the state government’s budget could be addressed by adding 2 percentage points to the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax, he said. Or, he said, the state could double the local property tax mill levy for public schools. Another option: Push state income tax rates above levels that existed before the 2012 supply-side tax cuts.
“It’s a math problem — again,” Ryckman said during a luncheon with Johnson County Republicans. “If you want to raise taxes again, I know the answer to that question. No.”
He said the solution would necessitate spending reductions in the state’s $6.5 billion budget at a time when even officials in the GOP-led Brownback administration were seeking substantial increases in state appropriations. Brownback handed off budget-writing duties to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who expects to be governor when the 2018 session starts in January.
“The governor’s agencies just came in with almost $260 million of additional requests,” Ryckman said. “We still want to talk about cybersecurity. We want to talk about our water plan. We want to talk about mental health.”
Ryckman said decades of squabbling about education financing required consideration by the Legislature and voters in Kansas of an amendment of the state constitution. Plaintiff school districts have repeatedly filed lawsuits and prevailed before the Supreme Court with arguments anchored on interpretation of the word “suitable,” which was added to the constitution in 1966.
“It seemed pretty simple,” the House speaker said. “It says that the Legislature shall provide ‘suitable’ provisions for K-12. Our Supreme Court the last 25 years and the Legislature, regardless of who the governor is, regardless of who is in control, have been debating and arguing and cannot agree on what that word means.”
He’s aware dozens of proposed education amendments have withered on the political vine. To get an amendment on a statewide ballot altering the suitablity dynamic, two-thirds of the House and Senate must endorse the proposed amendment. A simple majority among Kansans voting would decide the issue.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said legislators irritated with the Supreme Court and intent on adjusting the constitution shouldn’t expect help from Democrats. The House has 40 Democrats and 85 Republicans, but GOP moderates are a significant force.
“I am as frustrated as anyone with the constant litigation,” Ward said. “The solution is not to deny access to the courts. The solution is to do our job and fund our schools equitably and equally.”
Hensley said each of 33 education amendments proposed since 1966 had failed. He said every legislator who served during the past half century took an oath to uphold the constitution — not just portions of it they found politically advantageous.
“I don’t think you change the rules just because the court says, ‘That’s your constitutional duty,’” he said.
Ryckman said he understood the challenge of passing an education amendment, but urged people to keep an open mind.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s very definitely a heavy lift,” he said. “Bring the constitution back to the people. It’s not the speaker of the House’s constitution. It’s not our governor’s constitution. It’s not our Supreme Court’s constitution. It’s the peoples.’ ”