The state Legislature will wrestle with several key issues during the 2018 session, but none will be bigger than school finance, local lawmakers said.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled the Legislature’s 2017 school funding plan unconstitutional in October and gave them until April 30 to fix it.
“School funding will be a major topic on everybody’s mind,” Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said. “We had an opportunity last year to address some of the school funding issues. It was a missed opportunity. I am hopeful we can fix some of that this year.”
Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said school finance trumps all other issues.
“While there are many important issues that will compete for legislative attention, none is as large, immediate, and consequential to other areas of the state’s budget as this one,” he said.
Rep. Kevin Jones, a member of the house K-12 committee, said school funding will drive the whole session.
“How the Legislature deals with the court’s opinions on the K-12 funding case is the pivotal issue,” Jones said. “That will determine which parts of government gets money, which does not, how it is paid out, and should more taxes be raised. I believe that the Kansas Legislature needs to forward to the people a logical and common sense definition of the word ‘suitable’ as it pertains to K-12 funding in the Kansas Constitution.”
Gov. Sam Brownback’s State of the State address Tuesday evening to a joint session of the Legislature included his recommendation of adding $600 million in education funding over five years.
“This multi-year approach will provide the time necessary for school districts to plan and spend this additional money more effectively,” he said. “My proposal does not include a tax increase.”
Tyson said legislators questioned where the extra money will come from.
“The budget will be presented [Wednesday] so we will find out,” she said. “I was somewhat surprised on some issues he presented. You could tell he obviously cares about the state. Some of the things he visited about, hopefully we work together and try to get some of it solved.”
Jones said the governor’s school funding proposal may be just a wish.
“At this point, it seems to me that his $600 million increase in spending just for K-12 is a dream,” he said. “In context, the governor was talking about dreams in the State of the State address.”
Tyson said other top issues for the Legislature are mental health, prisons, foster care and taxes. She said the Legislature needs to review last year’s record tax increase of $1.2 million spread over two years and the impact of the federal tax decrease on the state.
Tyson said mental health and prison facilities need upgraded.
“These are items that have been reported on in the last several years,” she said. “They need to be dealt with. The governor brought up human trafficking. That is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Finch said the Legislature needs to address civil asset forfeiture, cybersecurity of state information systems, child welfare and the foster care system.
The 2018 session began Monday.
Each legislative session has its own identity, Tyson said.
“They all have a different dynamic,” she said. “This is going to be an interesting session. It is interesting each year to find out what our priorities are as a state.”
She said legislators need to bring different solutions to the table.
“There are little pockets of individuals that have come up with new ideas,” Tyson said. “It is hard to get majority...that is where the difficulty lies.”