After 99 days of anger and anguish, Kansas lawmakers went home following a rare Sunday session, leaving the governor to sign a bill slashing taxes and letting judges draw new election districts.
Legislators capped the last day by passing a $14.3 billion budget that added more money for schools but never advanced Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan for overhauling the school finance formula.
The session was marked by a bitterly divided Legislature as the House and Senate clashed over a number of key issues, including the depth of tax cuts, school funding and drawing new election districts to account for shifts in the population.
“It’s tense and it’s difficult and it’s been difficult for me, too,” Brownback told House Republicans at their caucus Saturday morning.
The testy relationship between the two chambers — and especially between moderate and conservative Republicans — centered on a session-long feud over new election districts for Congress, the state House, the state Senate and the state Board of Education.
“This is one of the more brutal sessions I’ve experienced,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who has been in the Legislature 36 years.
The debate over election boundaries was rooted in the battle for control of the state Senate, now run by moderate Republicans who are seen as an obstacle to Bownback’s agenda.
Backed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, conservative Republican challengers have lined up to run against several moderate Republicans, including Sens. John Vratil of Leawood, Terrie Huntington of Fairway and Tim Owens.
The Senate initially proposed a map that cut three conservative challengers — Greg Smith of Overland Park, and Brenda Landwehr and Gary Mason, both of Wichita — out of districts represented by moderates.
It later relented with a proposal that put Smith and Landwehr back in their original districts.
Ultimately, the Legislature failed to draw any new election maps, leaving a panel of federal judges to decide the issue when it goes to court May 29.
Brownback, meanwhile, is poised to sign a massive tax bill that will cost roughly $3.7 billion over five years and is forecast to put the state in a $242 million financial hole as early as fiscal year 2013-14, growing to $2.5 billion in 2018.
“This session is the beginning of devastating school cuts, social service cuts and critical government services that aren’t going to be able to be delivered in the same capacity as they have,” said Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
“I think that is the part of this session that will be heard by Kansans for many years to come,” said Davis, the House minority leader.
Brownback predicted that tax cuts would create tens of thousands of jobs and make Kansas “the best place in America to start and grow a small business.”
“The 2012 Legislative session came down to a simple question: Do we want to grow the government or grow the economy? The resounding answer: We’re going to grow the economy,” the governor said in a statement.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, who helped spearhead passage of the tax plan, said he expects deep cuts in the income tax rates to drive economic growth for Kansas.
“This tax relief is huge, as it should be,” O’Neal said. “Business interests in the country are looking at Kansas right now pretty strongly.”
However, he acknowledged that spending adjustments might come in the future.
“Will we face some challenges in the budget in the immediate year coming out of this? Sure. But the administration is ready to take care of those challenges.”
The deal reached on school finance was $37 million less than what the Senate wanted for education and about $10 million less than what the House had proposed.
The money adds about $60 to the base state aid per pupil. It does not include money to compensate property-poor school districts.
The plan does not give local school districts the ability to raise local taxes for general operations or for extra-curricular activities, two proposals that had some general support this year.
The bill would bring about $6.9 million more for Johnson County’s six school districts. It would provide about $2.5 million for Wyandotte County’s four school districts.
The Blue Valley district would get $1.7 million, Shawnee Mission would receive $2 million and Olathe would take in $2.1 million. The Kansas City, Kan. district would get $1.8 million.
Kansas City area education officials said Sunday they were thankful for any additional funding in the face of budget cuts of recent years.
“This will be the first funding increase we’ve seen since 2009,” said David A. Smith, chief of staff for the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools. “Those other years are lost. But at least this begins to move us in a positive direction, and we’re grateful for that.”
Blue Valley School District Superintendent Tom Trigg noted that base state aid has been reduced by a total of about $600 per pupil in the last four years.
“This increase makes up about 10 percent of what we’ve lost, but we have a long way to go” to reach past levels of per-pupil funding, Trigg said.
Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission leaders expressed disappointment in the failure of proposals that would have expanded districts’ power to raise local taxes to support activity budgets.
“We’ll take anything we can get at this point and make it work,” said Gene Johnson, superintendent of the Shawnee Mission School District.
The governor’s plan to retool the school finance formula never got much traction this year. His plan would have given school districts the unlimited ability to raise property taxes to fund operations.
The debate over schools and tax cuts became intermingled during the session.
Late Saturday, Gov. Sam Brownback asked the Senate to agree to revisit proposals including a compromise tax plan in exchange for $77 million in education funding.
The Senate rejected that offer, which also asked senators to agree to some redistricting plans that potentially benefited conservative Republicans, because it assumed 4 percent growth and savings from Medicaid reform that couldn’t be counted on, senators said.
State Rep. Marc Rhoades, the lead budget negotiator from the House, said the Senate could have won more for schools if it had agreed to the compromise tax plan.
“If we had that other bill, that would have freed up more money to spend,” he said.
The Star’s Rick Montgomery contributed to this report. To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.