Education funding dominates agenda



February 27, 2018 - 12:00 AM

HUMBOLDT — Legislators will need to deal with “the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” — school finance — before they can tackle other big issues like taxes, potential Medicaid expansion and transportation, two local legislators said at a forum Monday in Humboldt.
And before they can address school funding, they’ll need to know important details like how much revenue the state expects in its April report and what sort of recommendations may come from consultants hired to study the school finance matter.
Kent  Thompson, who represents District 9 in the Kansas House of Representatives, including Iola and western Allen County, and Adam Lusker, who represents District 2 (eastern Allen County) in the House, said they’re hopeful changes made to the state’s tax policy last year will bring more in money. That will help guide discussion on a new school finance law as ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court, which set an April 30 deadline.
Thompson and Lusker spoke to area residents at a legislative forum sponsored by Allen and Neosho County Farm Bureaus. It was the first joint legislative forum for the two entities, though they’ve joined forces for other events.
It’s too early to know what direction the new school finance law will take, both Thompson and Lusker said, but they want to keep an open mind on all options.
Solutions could include anything from raising taxes or even a constitutional convention to redefine what “a suitable education” means — but few in the legislature seem inclined to pursue either of those options, Lusker said. It’s more likely legislators will attempt to reduce tax exemptions such as those given to churches and charitable organizations, they predicted.
“There’s not a great appetite to raise any taxes,” Lusker said in response to questions about whether the legislature might target property taxes, especially on agricultural land, as a way to meet the court’s demands for more money for schools. “I’m hoping revenues come in better than predicted. Right now, they are.”
Recent changes to federal tax policy could bring the state a windfall of between $130 to $180 million more in income tax revenue.
“I don’t know if those numbers are true, but we do think we’ll get better revenue,” Lusker said.
It’s difficult for legislators to come together to pass legislation, Thompson said.
However, he thinks the election of more moderate Republicans and Democrats in 2016 helped the state. Both Thompson and Lusker said the previous school funding formula would have met the court’s requirements if it had been followed properly. Instead, at Brownback’s urging, legislators changed the formula to a block grant system in 2014.
“That formula stood the test of time and it stood the test of the Supreme Court,” Thompson said.
A new formula passed last year brought back many elements of the old formula. Lusker said he hopes legislators can repair the formula “and not end up in court every time.”
“I feel good because I think the state is moving in the right direction,” Thompson said. “We overturned a veto on Gov. Brownback’s signature tax policy. None of us are pro-tax but we see a lot of programs that are severely underfunded. The state was severely crippled the last couple of years. The only reason for government to exist is because as a group we can do something we can’t individually.”

TRANSPORTATION issues, particularly in regard to planned improvements on U.S. 169 between Iola and Humboldt, consumed much of the discussion. Residents were concerned about damage to local roads, particularly the old U.S. 169 between Humboldt and Iola, as heavy trucks and semi-trailers avoid the longer state detour on U.S. 54 and U.S. 75.
Lusker said it would be important for Allen County commissioners to continue to negotiate with KDOT about compensation for damages.
Lusker and Thompson also bemoaned Brownback’s habit of raiding the transportation budget to make up lost revenue from the 2012 tax cuts.
“Long-term infrastructure is huge,” Thompson said. “Kansas has always been known to have great roads, but you can’t take time off.”
The legislators said they hope Gov. Jeff Colyer won’t follow Brownback’s footsteps, but this year’s budget — which Colyer helped craft — again plans to take money from KDOT. The election of a new governor in 2018 also could change things, they said.
“We changed that 2012 tax policy and put 350,000 businesses back on the tax rolls and we did increase everybody’s income taxes slightly for good schools and to help people who can’t help themselves,” Thompson said. “We took the first step last year. You can’t buy everything you want right away. A lot depends on the next governor and which direction the state is going to go.”