Kelly denounces senate’s budget plan as ‘sabotage’ of K-12 system

Gov. Laura Kelly said the budget bill passed by the Kansas Senate would inappropriately replace $570 million in state funding to K-12 education with one-time federal COVID-19 aid..(Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly said the budget bill passed by the Kansas Senate would inappropriately replace $570 million in state funding to K-12 education with one-time federal COVID-19 aid..(Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

GOP using federal COVID-19 aid to cover state’s obligations to schools

By TIM CARPENTER
Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly
responded with contempt to a feeling of deja vu after the Kansas Senate
voted to rely on federal COVID-19 funding rather than Kansas tax dollars
to cover as much as $568 million in public education obligations in a
proposed two-year state budget.

The Republican-controlled
Senate wants to explore opportunities to earmark COVID-19 assistance to
cover the state’s obligations to Kansas for public education, but not
make a final decision until May. Passage of Senate Bill 267
signaled the Senate would delay final K-12 budget decisions a couple
months to seek clarity on the state’s tax revenue picture and to await
guidance from the federal government on spending pandemic aid funneled
into the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

“If Senate Bill 267
becomes law it would cut funding for Kansas public schools by more than
half a billion dollars,” Kelly said. “The last thing Kansas needs — just
as our teachers are vaccinated and our kids are returning to in-person
learning — is to sabotage our education system by subverting critical
COVID recovery funds.”

Sen. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, gestures to Sen. Dan Kerschen, left, and Sen. Mike Petersen before debating a budget relying on one-time federal funding to cover state obligations to public K-12 education. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, gestures to Sen. Dan Kerschen, left, and Sen. Mike Petersen before debating a budget relying on one-time federal funding to cover state obligations to public K-12 education. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Kelly, a Democrat, was
serving in the Kansas Senate during a national recession more than a
decade ago when temporary federal stimulus money was rolled into Kansas’
education budget to free state tax dollars for other purposes. The move
offered immediate relief from budget pressures, but reliance on
one-time money eventually meant the state faced a budgetary reckoning.

The Legislature dealt with
its post-recession budget problems by abandoning school-funding
promises and passing aggressive income tax cuts embraced by then-Gov.
Sam Brownback. The inevitable lawsuit filed by public school districts
led to intervention by the Kansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the
Legislature’s constitutional duty to suitably finance K-12 public
schools. The Supreme Court retained jurisdiction over the latest lawsuit
in anticipation legislators might again fail to complete a muli-year
plan to improve funding of public education. Much of the Brownback tax
program was repealed in 2017.

“I promised when I became
governor that Kansas would not make the mistakes of the past, and that
we would fulfill our constitutional obligation to fully fund our public
schools, and I will keep that promise,” Kelly said.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 24-13
to send a two-year budget bill to the House. GOP senators defended the
decision to shoehorn CARES Act money into the state’s K-12 budget — $236
million in the fiscal year starting July 1 and $332 million in the
subsequent fiscal year.

Senate President Ty
Masterson, R-Andover, said objections to the Senate bill were a “red
herring” and “scare tactic” because nothing about the state government’s
budget had been set in stone. He said the Senate’s approach did have a
“chicken-and-egg” feel, but did nothing to jeopardize K-12 aid designed
specifically to address academic inequities across the state. The
prudent decision is to wait for more information about appropriation of
the COVID-19 relief targeting the nation’s schools, he said.

Masterson rejected a
proposal by Democrats to put state general fund dollars into K-12 now
and leave open the option of replacing that money with federal aid if
permitted.

Senate President Ty Masterson talks with Sen. Virgil Peck in a doorway to the Senate chamber prior to debate on a state budget bill replacing state aid to K-12 schools with federal COVID-19 aid allocated for education. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Senate President Ty Masterson talks with Sen. Virgil Peck in a doorway to the Senate chamber prior to debate on a state budget bill replacing state aid to K-12 schools with federal COVID-19 aid allocated for education. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“This would be akin to
committing to pay a bill that you don’t know that you need,” Masterson
said. “We want more information. That’s never a bad thing. It would be
unwise to handcuff ourselves to something.”

Masterson said the state’s
experience after the Great Recession should convince lawmakers of the
prudence in banking state general fund dollars for the day when COVID-19
relief ended. At that point, the GOP senator said, the state could need
financial reserves to confront a type of financial cliff.

“By saying we’re going to
use these federal dollars, which are one-time dollars, that is setting a
cliff,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa.

Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan
Democrat, said the Kansas Department of Education concluded federal
coronavirus aid to schools couldn’t be used to replace state tax dollars
for K-12 schools. He said the department believes the federal aid in
question must be spent on costs directly tied to the pandemic.

He said it would be better
to set COVID-19 money aside and plug state tax dollars into the K-12
budget until more was known about expenditure options. He also pointed
to the Senate’s passage of Senate Bill 22
slashing state taxes by an estimated $478 million, which wasn’t
accounted for when Senate Republicans cobbled together the two-year
budget plan because it could eventually lead the state to a $78 million
deficit.

“This is not a sustainable
budget for the resources we have beyond the one-time money,” Hawk said.
“This really puts us, in my mind, in a difficult position.”

Sen. Richard Billinger, a
Goodland Republican and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee,
said advocates of swapping state tax dollars for federal relief funding
in the budget weren’t walking away from promises to invest in the quest
to close achievement gaps among low-income and minority students in
public schools.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, center, proposed a 3% cut in state spending that exempted K-12 schools, public safety and other mandatory expenditures. His amendment cutting $60 million was rejected by the GOP-led Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, center, proposed a 3% cut in state spending that exempted K-12 schools, public safety and other mandatory expenditures. His amendment cutting $60 million was rejected by the GOP-led Senate. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The approach doesn’t
signal abandonment of a six-year strategy to close funding inadequacies
affirmed by the Supreme Court, he said.

“I fully believe that
we’re going to fund them,” Billinger said. “We need to fund them. It’s
just how we do that and when. We want to utilize all available federal
funds. It’s prudent on our part to try to look at avenues that help fill
in the state general fund.”

Overall, the Senate budget
plan would spend $56 million more than recommended by the governor.
That inspired Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, to propose a
3% cut in budgets not related to K-12 education, public safety and
obligations to Medicaid recipients. He said the proposal would reduce
expenditures by about $60 million. The GOP-led chamber rejected his
amendment 14-19.

Hilderbrand said it was
“really ironic and, I’m sorry, just downright comical” that the 31
senators not on the Ways and Means Committee were repeatedly thwarted
from advancing budget amendments on the Senate floor. The full Senate is
the proper venue despite the view of those running the Senate’s budget
committee, he said.

“Sooner or later that
sledgehammer will fall,” Hilderbrand said. “It’s going to hurt. It’s
going to hurt bad. We’re not being fiscally responsible.”

Sykes, the Democratic
leader in the Senate, offered this closing thought: “We cannot pay for
tax cuts for giant multinational corporations, keep the lights on and
keep our state running, and operate with a positive balance under this
proposed budget. Furthermore, this budget punts our constitutional
obligation to fund our schools. One-time federal funds during a pandemic
do not a finance formula make.”

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.