TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators have drifted through another week without debates in either chamber on a plan for boosting spending on public schools or proposals to increase taxes to pay for it and also fix the state budget.
They held no late-night or even evening House and Senate sessions and haven’t worked any weekends since returning this month from their annual spring break, both common in the past as they’ve been trying to finish. When they reconvene Monday, they’ll be only days away from the 100th day of their annual session — which is supposed to be their last.
They’re still struggling with a chicken-and-egg question. Do they pass tax legislation first to set the upper limits of what they can spend on schools and the rest of the budget? Or do they pass a school funding plan first to set how much new revenue must be generated with tax increases?
“If we would have a schools debate, that would change everything,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Topeka Democrat.
Kansas faces projected budget shortfalls totaling $887 million through June 2019. Many lawmakers want to roll back past income tax cuts engineered by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback — raising $1 billion or more over two years — but would need two-thirds majorities in both chambers to override a potential veto.
The state Supreme Court ruled in March that Kansas’ funding for its 286 local school districts is inadequate. A House committee has approved a plan to phase in a $280 million increase over two years, while a Senate panel is working on a two-year, $234 million plan. Both fall far short of what attorneys for four school districts suing the state see as adequate.
The House and Senate have started negotiations over the final version of tax legislation, so votes could come quickly in both chambers — if lawmakers agree on a plan and the timing of the votes. House GOP leaders are pushing to settle tax issues before school funding.
“You could end up passing a bill that nobody wants to fund,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican.
GOP leaders previously set Wednesday as the last day of the session, but they could go past that because the Kansas Constitution doesn’t set a specific end date.
But lawmakers do face some deadlines. The Supreme Court gave lawmakers until June 30 to draft a new school funding formula. The state’s new fiscal year — for which there is no budget yet — starts the next day. Brownback’s budget director, Shawn Sullivan, said lawmakers must pass the budget or approve emergency legislation by June 17 to keep most state workers on the job. That’s because employees will be receiving pay in July for work done weeks earlier.
This year’s session already is unusually long, with Monday the 98th day. Only three past sessions have lasted more than 100 days, with the record of 114 days set in 2015, another year marked by contentious debates over the budget and taxes.
In neighboring Missouri, lawmakers must end their annual sessions on a Friday in mid-May under the state constitution. But if the governor isn’t satisfied with their work, he can call them back into special session, as GOP Gov. Eric Greitens did this year.
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