Lansing legislators vote for package, worry about 2006
State Rep. Kenny Wilk says he learned a few lessons in the recently completed special legislative session called to deal with court-ordered school funding issues.
First, Wilk said, all 125 state representatives and 40 state senators now have the experience under their belts; prior to the session that ended July 6 with passage of a $148.4 million school-funding package, the most recent special session took place in 1989.
"There were only seven legislators that had gone through a special session out of 165. There are now 165. You will not have to worry about us repeating that mistake anytime soon," he said.
The three lawmakers who represent Lansing in the Legislature - Wilk, a Republican, Rep. Candy Ruff, D-Leavenworth, and Sen. Mark Gilstrap, D-Kansas City - all voted for the compromise package that brought the mostly acrimonious session to an end.
In the end, Wilk said, he also learned government works.
"There was all this talk about a constitutional crisis," Wilk said. "It was a constitutional conflict, not a constitutional crisis. And actually, the system worked quite well. It was painful, but that's democracy."
Wilk went into the session supportive of boosting state funding for public schools. But hand in hand with that, he wanted the Legislature to put before Kansas voters a constitutional amendment clarifying that the Legislature has sole the duty of appropriating state tax money.
Wilk, like many Republican legislators, thought the Kansas Supreme Court overstepped its bounds last month when it ordered the Legislature to increase funding for public schools by $143 million this year.
The special session ground to a halt while many House Republicans tried to garner enough votes to pass a constitutional amendment limiting the court's power. Finally, after a three-day recess for the July 4 holiday and more threatened court action, the effort to pass a constitutional amendment during the special session was abandoned.
Ruff said she weary of attempts to amend the constitution when the purpose of the special session was to address school funding needs, and she criticized Republicans for their failed attempts.
"From the start, they knew they didn't have the votes," she said, noting that the initial House vote on amending the constitution fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. "What kind of wieners do you think we are? It was absurdity to think you would be able to intimidate us or that we would give in."
Gilstrap noted the Senate came to its conclusions early on without the drama that ensued in the House.
"I think the Senate acted responsibly. We came in and had all of our work done in three to five days, and we took on all the issues," he said. House squabbles lengthened the session.
Finally, on the 12th day of the session, both the House and Senate approved a $148.4 million funding increase aimed at placating the court and keeping schools open.
Wilk said he wasn't happy with the funding plan in its entirety but voted to approve it nevertheless. He said he thought the plan was too costly, especially a provision that added $30 million to the plan's cost.
"I don't think the $30 million property tax buydown was well thought-out at all, but several senators were adamant about it," said Wilk, who called the bill "the last train out of the station."
Ruff said she wasn't keen on provisions that were tailored to benefit districts in Johnson County but was glad more money was being put into education overall.
Gilstrap said he was happy the five school districts he represents will reap the benefits of an additional $291 million in state funds in the coming year. At the high end, the Kansas City, Kan., district is expected to receive an additional $12 million in 2005-06, he said. Lansing is in line for an additional $638,000.
Though the high court has given its approval to the funding plan, all three lawmakers said the special session would not be the end of school finance issues. Lawmakers will have to consider increasing funding again next year, the court indicated.
"The present solution may not be ideal. However, it is approved for interim purposes," Chief Justice Kay McFarland said in the court's unanimous order. One school of thought is that justices may order the Legislature to increase funding by $548 million in the 2006 session.
Though lawmakers tapped excess funds for this year's school finance package, they'll have difficulty doing so in the 2006.
"We're all cognizant it's not going to be a fun and easy session," Gilstrap said.