Kansas lawmakers still debating how to fund schools, possible raise for state employees

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas Legislature members mill around the mostly empty Statehouse on Tuesday afternoon as committee meetings took place.

Kansas legislators are in the waning days of sorting out the state budget for the coming fiscal years, but — much like college students ahead of finals — have left some of the hardest work for last.

Much of the spending blueprint has been locked in. Gov. Laura Kelly signed the $21.4 billion budget bill Monday, opting to keep the core elements of the document intact — although she did opt to use her line-item veto powers on more than a dozen items. 

That includes language giving legislators power over appropriating federal COVID-19 relief funds, a move to lift the moratorium on admissions at the state's psychiatric hospitals and a provision requiring state agencies and contractors to use E-Verify.

But what is most significant about the state's spending blueprint is what was left out.

Legislators have yet to determine a path forward on funding the state's public schools, with members still split over making another run at tying the Kansas Department of Education budget to a slate of school choice proposals. 

Other key items are still up in the air, with budget writers haggling over whether to give a 2.5% pay raise to all state employees. Salary hikes for staff members at the state's colleges and universities, as well as employees in the judicial system, are also up in the air.

Legislators are set to return to Topeka next week, in large part to settle these remaining questions.

"I mean, it is a challenge getting 21 votes on anything anymore," said Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "That's a juggling act. I'm sure we're gonna fund education. It is just whether there is policy in there or not."

Lawmakers stare down school funding standoff

The elephant in the room is that looming school funding fight, which has been several months in the making.

Legislators were on a crash course to square off over the matter ever since a House committee made the move to link the KSDE budget and a raft of controversial school choice proposals.

Conservatives argued it was a way to ensure accountability for schools as they receive the full $5.8 billion proposed in Kelly's budget request for the next fiscal year. The amount is part of a Kansas Supreme Court-approved spending blueprint agreed to in 2019 after years of education funding lawsuits.

The court-ordered demands to spend more on schools have long rankled conservatives. And COVID-19 seemed to strengthen the push to expand the state's school choice offerings, as well as start a controversial new program to allow students to use public dollars to pay for private school tuition, among other expenses.

More:After dramatic debate, Kansas lawmakers shoot down school choice expansion

But the education mega-bill failed in the Kansas Senate earlier this month, sending legislators back to the drawing board with time dwindling.

"That really is that last train out," Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said earlier this month. "And we need to make sure that we have something that gets up, gets out for school districts." 

Legislators have a few options available to them now.

They could move to simply pass a clean school budget, opting to wait on the discussion of the school choice measures until the next session.

This could help smooth things over for members, particularly in the Senate, who were frustrated they did not have more time to review the proposals. It would satisfy Democrats and moderate Republicans, as well as school districts throughout the states, and avoid a potentially protracted debate

"When you try and do tricky things like mix policy up with funding — this committee is in charge of funding," Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, the top Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means said. "Let's ... fund our budget that we pay with state general fund, let's stay in compliance with the court and move on down the road."

But Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said her colleagues in the House would insist the education budget remain separate, linked to some form of school choice.

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, speaks on the floor earlier this year in support of a major expansion of the state's school choice offerings.

"We cannot allocate approximately $6 billion worth of resources without taking a hard look at some of the policy," said Williams, chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee.

It is unclear, however, if members will insist on the exact same choice policies that failed earlier this session. The most controversial element would have allowed parents to use dollars normally routed to schools for a wide range of purposes, including tuition at a private school. 

More:Spoiled for choice? Controversy rises over effort to expand key Kansas school choice program

Members could instead focus their attention on growing a program that offers private businesses tax credits for donations to bankroll private school scholarships of up to $8,000. The provision passed the Senate earlier this session and has more support than the other, more aggressive choice proposal.

But attaching any policy strings would run the risk of Kelly's veto pen. If the governor rejected the school funding plan, legislators would need to return to Topeka to hash out a solution or override her veto.

"We'll be leaving, it very hard to get people back," Williams said. "There are all sorts of repercussions ... She's going to put the schools in a bad situation (with a veto)."

Pay raise for state employees also up in the air

Legislators also haven't made a firm determination as to whether to give state employees a pay hike, a provision that would cost $14.3 million.

Hawk cited COVID-19 as a reason to change course this year, arguing the state needs to remain competitive. Public sector workers, he said, earned their keep after a challenging year.

Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, is among the advocates pushing for a 2.5% pay raise for state employees, which would cost the state $14.3 million.

"I know a lot of employers who have given employees bonuses and have tried to raise salaries to attract people and keep people here and get them back to work," he said. "Our state employees have managed to keep the ship afloat, and I'd like to reward them for that and keep them around. Because it has been a tough year."

The 2.5% raise is a longtime wish for Kelly, but the item has gotten nixed each of the past two years. State employees did receive two consecutive years of raises in 2017 and 2018, but the pandemic blocked its consideration last year.

More:Gov. Laura Kelly has released her budget proposal. Here's what you need to know

Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, argued it was poor optics for public sector workers to get a raise when some private employers had to close their doors and many other Kansans have found themselves without work.

"I don't think it looks very good for us to have made it so that other people in the private sector can't receive raises because we destroyed their businesses and then come here after having taken their money ... and giving everyone raises and making them whole while all of these other people have to suffer," Claeys said. "It is a bad look, and I don't want to have a part in it."

‘It is a balancing act that we're going to have to figure out’ 

Legislators got some good news last week when the twice-annual revenue projections showed the state's fiscal picture improving. 

That will give Republican lawmakers more ammo in pursuing a range of potential spending items in the weeks to come. That includes a near-certain attempt to override a veto from Kelly on a sweeping set of tax cuts, a measure long coveted by conservatives.

More:Kansas' fiscal future improves slightly, setting up potential spending battles

The $240 million price tag on that measure caused the governor to balk, but an estimated $1.1 billion surplus will embolden Republicans.

"We can afford (the tax bill)," Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said at the state Republican Party convention Saturday in Manhattan. "Anyone who says we can't isn't paying attention."

Billinger, the Republican from Goodland, noted he was happy the state wasn't in a more precarious fiscal position, a fate many feared in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But he noted having more money to play with will make it harder to say no to certain projects, potentially complicating the legislative endgame.

"It is a balancing act that we're going to have to figure out," Billinger said.