TOPEKA, Kan. — Election-year politics will hinder efforts by Kansas officials to comply with a state Supreme Court demand for a new, fairer public school funding law that also significantly boosts spending.
Finding a solution that satisfies the court next year will force the Republican-controlled Legislature and soon-to-be GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer to consider a second big tax increase in as many years. An alternative would be big spending cuts in other parts of state government, which many lawmakers find equally unpalatable.
Colyer, now the lieutenant governor awaiting Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s departure for an ambassador’s post, is running for a full, four-year term for governor next year in a crowded GOP primary field. Taxes will be a key issue — putting pressure on GOP lawmakers to avoid another big hike.
Taxes also are a tough issue for Democrats, even though their political base argues that schools remain under-funded despite extra dollars approved earlier this year. Embracing another tax increase too eagerly could alienate independent and Republican voters they need to win the governor’s and legislative races. All 125 House members are up for election in 2018.
“Any solution is going to be very difficult,” said state Sen. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican who serves on the Senate budget committee. “I don’t see an easy path in any form.”
An education funding law approved in June phased in a $293 million increase in aid to public schools over two years, bringing it to $4.3 billion annually. Legislators increased individual income taxes to raise $1.2 billion over two years, rolling back the tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013 as part of Brownback’s fiscal “experiment,” both to balance the budget and provide extra dollars for schools.
The Supreme Court ruled that the extra funding for schools still isn’t enough to finance a suitable education for every child, as the state constitution requires. The court did not set a specific spending target but hinted lawmakers must provide at least $500 million more a year.
The job would be tough even without legislative elections or the contest to determine whether Colyer stays as governor following Brownback’s nomination by President Trump to be U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Democrats and GOP moderates felt they were on pretty solid political ground in repudiating Brownback’s tax policies. Voters turned on his allies in 2016 in the wake of the state’s persistent budget woes, electing a less conservative Legislature.
But key GOP moderates said this past week that voters unhappy with Brownback are unlikely to view a second big tax increase as a mere corrective to his policies.
“Among those who helped us to do the heavy lifting of passing that tax increase in 2017, there are those who say, ‘I’m done,'” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Dighton Republican.
The Senate’s three top Republicans issued a joint statement after the Supreme Court’s ruling that another tax increase “is not going to happen.”
Colyer declined Thursday to discuss specific policy with reporters but told them he would work to find a solution that also “grows the economy,” which is often GOP-speak for holding the line on taxes. His biggest potential Republican rival, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has a solid base on the right, and opposes any tax increase, spokeswoman Samantha Poetter said.
Democrats are being circumspect, too.
Asked about higher taxes, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, noted that the state’s tax collections have exceeded expectations by $73 million over the past three months — holding out hope that surpluses could cover extra costs.
Hensley also argued that the court might accept a plan that boosts the state’s aid to public schools by about another $200 million a year, increasing the total to roughly $4.5 billion.
“We’ve got to see where we are three months from now, financially,” Hensley said.
Even if legislators didn’t have strong misgivings about raising taxes again, their debate will play out against the backdrop of a GOP primary race for governor. It will stir up conservative activists who’d like to see lawmakers defy the court.
AP Political Writer John Hanna has covered state government and politics since 1986. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .