Kansas lawmakers face vexing school funding puzzle

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas lawmakers are preparing to open their annual session facing a court mandate to boost spending on public schools with little appetite to do what could be necessary to pay for it.

The Republican-controlled Legislature was scheduled to convene Monday afternoon for short, mostly ceremonial meetings to start the traditional 90-day clock. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, waiting to depart for an ambassador’s post, will give the annual State of the State address Tuesday evening and lay out budget proposals Wednesday.

The big question ahead of Brownback’s speech was what he will propose as a response to the state Supreme Court’s ruling in October that Kansas’ total aid to its 286 school districts of about $4.3 billion a year is insufficient under the state constitution. Brownback promised to have a plan but divulged no details beforehand.

Many legislators, particularly Republicans, are frustrated because they approved a school funding law last year that phased in a $293 million aid increase over two years. They also raised income taxes by roughly $600 million a year to help pay for it and balance the state budget, overriding Brownback’s veto of a bill that rolled back past tax cuts he had championed.

“It’s a tough process,” Brownback said during an interview. “It will be a difficult topic.”

The Supreme Court also said parts of the school funding law, in how funds are distributed, are unfair to poor school districts, but lawmakers expect to wrestle most with how much to increase spending. The court did not set a specific figure but hinted in its decision that it expects aid to rise by as much as $650 million a year.

“My legislators are repulsed at the thought of another tax increase,” Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, speaking of fellow GOP senators. “It’s not going to happen.”

Yet legislators in both parties also are put off by the idea of big cuts in spending on universities, social services and public safety so that the dollars can be shifted to public schools.

“There’s not an easy fix, either the revenue side or on the budget side,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican. “I don’t think anyone has the answer right now.”

Brownback’s future creates an additional complication. He and legislators don’t know when he’ll resign, elevating Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to governor.

President Donald Trump nominated Brownback as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in July. But the U.S. Senate did not vote on his confirmation by the end of the year, requiring him to be nominated again. The delay has led to an awkward transition period.