SCHOOL FINANCE UPDATE
Senate leaders introduced a school funding plan this week, answering a recent House proposal on the issue with a three-year, $660 million plan for public schools. The total amount of funding in the Senate’s plan was higher than the House’s $500 million proposal, introduced last week. But while the House plan’s funding would come from the state, the Senate’s version requires school districts to provide $180 million from local property taxes to match $480 million in state funding.
In the past, the legislature has given local school boards the option to levy a finite percentage in additional budget authority in local property taxes. This year, there are proposals to require that a certain mill levy be enacted locally and then “deemed” state funding. This doesn’t change the tax burden locally, but the legislators intend to use it to bolster their claim that the state is funding schools adequately. Some call it deceptive, saying the money raised by local property taxes as state foundation funding does not make it so.
Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the plaintiff school districts, says he’s OK with local districts being able to supplement school funding with local funds, but it can only be done after the state has met its constitutional duty to fund schools at an adequate level. “If you give local districts more local option budget authority without reaching adequacy, you have wreaked havoc with equity,” Rupe said.
Senate leaders are working on a gaming initiative in hopes increasing state revenues and providing funding for schools without increasing taxes.
A new gaming measure was introduced in the Senate this week. The measure introduced in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee would produce more than $500 million over four years for the state from new casinos in Kansas City, KS, southeast Kansas, and 7,000 slot machines at tracks in Kansas City, KS, Frontenac, Wichita, and Dodge City (if a race track is built there).
Many lawmakers support the expansion of gambling to help pay for school finance increases. Legislative school spending plans so far this session have ranged from $500 million to $660 million over the next three years. The measure could produce $521 million for state coffers over the next four years, in addition to pumping in $173.7 million for local governments that could be used for property tax relief. Indian nations, which already operate casinos in northeast Kansas, oppose any competition from other casinos in Kansas.
Legislators acknowledged that lobbying was getting intense to find the 21 votes needed in the 40-member Senate to gain approval. The Senate is expected to work the bill in committee early next week and could receive a vote in the Senate by the end of the week.
STATE PAY PLAN ADVANCES
State employees would receive a pay raise under a bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday. On a 36-4 vote, Senators OK’d a $49.9 million package of compensation increases for all state employees except legislators. Classified employees would move one step higher on the pay scale or get a 2.5% increase if they have topped out on the scale due to seniority. Either way, the average raise would be 2.5% for that classification of employees, which includes correctional officers, file clerks, administrative assistants and others who receive protection under the civil service system.
For unclassified employees, such as university professors and judges, the bill creates a pool of money that would provide each employee with a 2.5% pay increase if spread equally. The raises would be based on merit, meaning the amount of actual raises would vary.
RESOLUTION AGAINST PICKETERS
The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee endorsed a resolution condemning picketing by Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers from the Westboro Baptist Church. The resolution came days after the Senate approved a bill designed to create a protest buffer extending 300 feet from the entrance to a mortuary, church or cemetery where a funeral is conducted.
Westboro Baptist Church members have picketed funerals nationwide, including those of soldiers who served in Iraq and victims of the Sago mining disaster earlier this year in West Virginia. Protesters say God is punishing the nation for its acceptance of homosexuality.
The bill that passed the Senate contained an exemption for streets, sidewalks and other spaces inside the buffer zone because the U.S. Supreme Court views expression in those places as constitutionally protected. The resolution acknowledges the right of Phelps and his followers to exercise their right to free speech but says the church’s message is held by most to be extremely egregious and offensive and even more so when presented at a military or other funeral.
REVENUES UP AGAIN
February tax-only revenues to the state were $5.3 million above estimates after several months of considerably larger increases. The tax-only figures released this afternoon by the Kansas Department of Revenue showed the state is now $79.8 million above the figure on which Gov. Kathleen Sebelius based her Fiscal Year 2007 budget. The Nov. 3 Consensus Revenue Estimates projected that the state would book $228.4 million in February, and the actual receipts were $233.7 million, up 2.3%. Corporate income tax predicted at just $1 million for February was up to $5.87 million, a 487% increase over estimates, but individual income tax estimated at $55 million produced just $49.3 million, $5.7 million less than expected and a drop of 10.4%. Individual income taxes are at that period when the state is making refunds to early-filers. Effect of refunds isn’t yet known on the month’s individual income tax receipts.
The brightest note is that sales taxes, which have been limping along, were $6.5 million above estimates, at $123.6 million. Estimates were $117 million and February produced a 5.6% jump. Use taxes, the companion of sales taxes, paid on out-of-state purchases, were up $1.7 million to $21.7 million. That’s 8.7% above the November estimate of $20 million.
House Speaker Doug Mays (R) said last week that the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment, which he co-sponsored, is basically dead for the 2006 session. Mays said that he isn’t “picking up much appetite among House members, Republican or Democrat” for the measure. Observers say advocates for higher education, social services and the business community have been working against the proposal, possibly as a result of Colorado voters’ decision to suspend their TABOR amendment last November. Americans for Prosperity, which backs TABOR, cited a poll that says 79% of Kansans favor the measure, which would require voter approval of tax increases and limit state spending increases to the rates of inflation and population. However, opponents of TABOR point out that the second question of that poll cites common criticisms of TABOR, such as it would make it difficult to fund vital programs like health care because those costs outstrip the inflation rate, and it would hurt government’s ability to respond to crises. When asked if they still supported the proposal, those in favor fell to 48% with those opposed at 41% and 12% undecided.
REVIEW OF HOMELAND SECURITY FUNDS
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will ask the state Homeland Security Council to examine how Kansas spends its federal homeland security grant money and whether it could be more cost-effective. Sebelius’ request was in response to a Feb. 26 Lawrence Journal-World article that examined the state’s contract with homeland security equipment vendor Fisher Scientific Inc. of Houston. The story showed that the company charges local emergency management agencies high fees when buying equipment, using limited taxpayer funds and frustrating local officials.
Some local emergency management officials have complained about the Kansas Highway Patrol’s management of the program, saying it makes the process of procuring some equipment more difficult than necessary. Next week, the Legislative Division of Post-Audit is scheduled to release its report about the Fisher Scientific contract after a limited-scope, 200-hour review of the contract. The review was slated to look at two issues: the fees Fisher Scientific charges the state, and whether the contract was bid competitively according to state law. The Legislative Post-audit Committee, a joint House-Senate committee will be presented with the audit results. The committee has authority to expand the audit and make other recommendations, though the committee has rarely expanded a limited-scope audit into a full-scale one.
GRANDPARENTS AS CAREGIVERS
The House passed SB 62, which provides help for extended families that become the caregivers for children whose parents abandon them or who are not able or willing to provide homes for their children. This bill is a high priority for the Silver Haired Legislature, which has been pushing for assistance for the thousands of grandparents who have found themselves caring for their grandkids. I voted for this legislation.
The grandparents are eligible for assistance if they are 50 years old or older and they are at less than 130% of the poverty level. The bill provides $200 for each child for up to three children. It is estimated that the program will cost around $2.1 million but it is likely to keep children out of the state foster care system, which is much more costly. It also works to allow children to live with family members and to keep siblings together.