Kansas legislators’ wrap-up session starts May 1. At the top of their list of things to accomplish is a tax and budget plan, which largely will be influenced by the amount of school funding that legislators decide to add in light of the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling last month. In the health policy arena, Medicaid expansion supporters are regrouping after the governor’s veto — and holding out hope for another shot this session.
Here’s a look at what legislators have accomplished and what remains to be done during the 2017 session regarding budget, education and health issues.
Coming To a Budget Compromise?
Lawmakers have made progress on balancing the current budget for the fiscal year that ends in June, but solutions for the coming years have eluded them. Revenue shortfalls are projected to total around $1 billion over the next two budget years.
Republican Senate President Susan Wagle said the slow progress is to be expected.
“Coming to a compromise, an agreement on a tax package is probably the most difficult thing any state Legislature would have to do,” she said.
In February the House and Senate did advance a tax increase, but Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the plan and lawmakers didn’t have the votes to override.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said legislators may consider a modified version of that plan.
“The issue, quite honestly, is the governor,” she said. “Can we get anything past him?”
Before the break, Brownback made an unexpected announcement that he was endorsing a “flat tax” plan from a Senate committee. It would have eliminated the current 2.7 and 4.6% income tax brackets and imposed a 4.6% tax rate on all Kansans.
That bill failed by a wide margin in the Senate, 37-3, and gave legislators a bit of insight, Kelly said.
“We have found out what won’t work. I guess that’s progress,” she said.
On Friday, Brownback called the budget work done so far a “good opening discussion” but said more negotiations are likely.
Both chambers have made some progress on budget plans for the coming two years. They largely avoid spending cuts and include some small, targeted spending increases. But both budgets would require hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue to balance.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, is among the lawmakers who want to consider spending cuts before tax increases.
“People in here generally like to spend money — especially other people’s money,” Pyle said.
The top budget writer in the Senate, Republican Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick, said last month that she’s prepared to make spending cuts.
“At the end of the day, we have to balance our budget,” McGinn said. “If nothing passes on the revenue side, we’ll be back. We’ll be taking things out. We will balance this budget.”
Court Ruling Steers Education Funding
Budget negotiations have been complicated by the need to develop a new school funding formula, as spending on K-12 public education takes up about half of the $6 billion state general fund. The optimism about education funding in Kansas really started in last year’s elections when moderate Republicans and Democrats unseated conservative legislators. Many of the new lawmakers had education backgrounds, from PTA members to a former superintendent, and made school funding a priority in their campaigns.
Adding to the discussion on school funding was the March 2 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that Kansas school funding was unconstitutionally inadequate. Estimates on how to fix that ranged from $500 million to $800 million.
The first plan from legislative leaders upped spending by just $75 million. Democrats, and most Republicans, dismissed it as too little. During a marathon hearing on March 30, the K-12 committee increased that one-time infusion of $75 million to a five-year total of $750 million in new spending.
Educators are excited about some elements of the bill: state funding for all-day kindergarten if districts choose to offer it, $10 million more over five years for at-risk early childhood development and about $2 million for teacher mentoring and professional development.
However, the committee did not pass out the bill. Instead they hired a constitutional lawyer to review the measure and ensure sure it will pass muster with the state Supreme Court before sending it to the House and Senate.
Once the bill hits the House and Senate floors, many questions remain. How will legislators come up with millions more in education funding when the state faces a large budget hole? Will moderate Republicans in the House be able to add more funding? Will $750 million survive in the Senate?
And then there’s the most important question: what will the Kansas Supreme Court think?
Medicaid Expansion: A Veto Victim
Expanding eligibility for KanCare, the state’s privately run Medicaid program, dominated health policy debates this session. After three years of attempts to get a Medicaid expansion bill beyond committee, the House and Senate debated and passed the bill. But they were unable to get enough votes to override Brownback’s veto.
Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project, said KanCare expansion advocates aren’t conceding defeat this session. But if the Legislature doesn’t take it up again this year, Weisgrau said advocates will keep pushing expansion as a way to help more Kansans access health care and to assist rural hospitals.
“I’m a believer that nothing is dead until the Legislature
This story was produced by Stephen Koranda, Meg Wingerter and Sam Zeff of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.