April 1, 2023

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Interim Committee Talks Tax Increases, Budget Cuts to Inject Money into Schools

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Rep. Anthony Hensley said the legislature would have an additional $565 million in funding if property owners had been paying taxes at that rate over the last 20 years.

“If the 35 mill statewide mill levy for schools were in place in fiscal year 2019, we would have $565 million more revenue for schools,” Hensley told members of a special interim committee studying how lawmakers can respond to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that deemed existing school financing unconstitutional.

Though Supreme Court Justices stopped short of naming a specific dollar amount necessary to meet constitutional muster, members of the committee examined ways to inject another $600 million into public schools. Lawmakers arrived at what appears to be the consensus, $600 million, based on requests from the Kansas State Board of Education and the school finance rulings of a lower court.

Currently, homeowners pay a statewide tax rate of 20 mills. Prior to the adoption of a statewide levy for schools following a 1992 lawsuit, mill levy rates varied dramatically among the state’s 300-plus school districts. In 1991, mill rates varied from 9 mills in Burlington to 98-some mills in Parsons, Chris Courtwright, Principal Economist for the Kansas Legislative Research Department, told the committee.

After the lawsuit, lawmakers set a statewide rate of 32 mills, before eventually dropping the rate to 20 in 1996.

“I’m not advocating going to 35 mills,” Hensley, who has represented the 19th District in Topeka since 1992, said. “If the legislature had not made that decision in ‘96, ‘97, we’d be much better off than we are today.”

The 11 members of the committee didn’t limit their discussion to tax increases, however. They also examined the potential bleeding other state services might incur if lawmakers cut other areas of the budget to fund schools as the Kansas Supreme Court deems appropriate.

“It may be that some of those areas you mention which are terribly important but don’t have constitutional protections may have to suffer,” Alan Rupe, attorney for the school districts suing the state, told the Wichita Eagle.

A special interim committee discussed raising taxes or cutting other department budgets to inject more money into public schools.

Representatives from a handful of state departments detailed how an 18 percent cut across the board would impact their services.

“If you’re just excluding K-12, which is about half of the state general fund, you’re going to have pretty drastic reductions everywhere else,” J.G. Scott, Assistant Director for Financial Services at Kansas Legislative Research Department, told the committee.

Keith Bradshaw, Kansas Department of Corrections finance director, told the committee the state would need to close three facilities and decrease its average daily population in state prisons by about 26 percent, or 2,500 inmates. The judicial branch would need to shutter court services for 70 days, or for three months, if their budget was cut by 18 percent. Gina Meier-Hummel, the acting secretary of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, said an 18 percent cut would slash the department’s budget by $47 million.

“Remember that the majority of our budget is tied up in foster care,” she told the committee. “Obviously, a cut would have a huge impact on a program that you all know is under extreme scrutiny.”

Committee members seemed uninterested in slashing department budgets or increasing taxes, but lawmakers will face a court-mandated April deadline to craft a new school financing mechanism. Arthur Chalmers, an attorney for the state told the committee they should work faster to give attorneys time to develop arguments. He recommended a March 1.

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