TOPEKA, Kan. – Kansas legislators approved an increase in spending on school funding early Sunday, with Republicans pushing the measure to passage over the bitter objections of some GOP colleagues in hopes of meeting a court mandate.
Dozens of teachers, many wearing red shirts, converged on the Statehouse, camped out for hours and cheered after the Senate approved a bill, 21-19, to phase in a $534 million increase in education funding over five years. The House passed the bill Saturday, 63-56, and GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer endorsed it publicly.
"I am pleased that we were able to compromise and pass a bill that ensures our schools will remain open and are funded adequately and equitably," Colyer said in a statement.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last fall that the state isn't spending enough money on its public schools. Colyer and some members of the Republican-controlled Legislature worried that a frustrated high court would take the unprecedented step of preventing the state from distributing dollars through a flawed education funding system, effectively closing schools statewide.
Many Democrats had argued that the plan, drafted largely by top House Republicans, would not satisfy the Supreme Court. Most Democrats in the House voted against it.
But the measure had bipartisan support in the Senate. The state's largest teachers union put aside its own misgivings that the plan was too small and had members pack the Senate gallery and hallways outside the chamber.
"It is certainly the best bill we've seen," said Kansas National Education Association lobbyist Mark Desetti. "It's time to get something before the court."
The Supreme Court declared in October that the state's current funding of more than $4 billion a year isn't enough for lawmakers to fulfill their duty under the Kansas Constitution to finance a suitable education for every child. It gave Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, until April 30 to report on how lawmakers responded.
Lawmakers had been scheduled to start an annual 2½-week spring break Saturday and return April 26 — four days before Schmidt's deadline. He and Colyer urged legislators to delay the break until a school funding bill passed.
Senate GOP leaders had excoriated a previous, similarly sized plan from the House as likely to force higher taxes within two years. The Senate approved a plan to phase in a $274 million increase over five years and top Republicans hoped in negotiations to talk the House down from its big plan.
"We know — absolutely know — if we're going to pay this bill, we're going to have to increase taxes," said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican.
Later, she said, "I'm here for the people who are footing the bill."
Colyer argued in a statement Saturday that the new plan could be sustained without increasing taxes. Supporters believe the annual growth in tax revenues will cover the new spending.
The Senate didn't take up the tax bill until late Saturday night, and some lawmakers grew increasingly nervous. The state constitution required two-thirds majorities in both chambers to pass a resolution to work past midnight and return April 26.
Had no resolution passed, lawmakers' annual session would have ended abruptly and all pending legislation would have died immediately. GOP leaders remained at odds over what is normally a routine task until two minutes before midnight, when a resolution won the House's approval.
The House and Senate had passed rival plans earlier in the week. Their negotiators made little progress Friday on how much school spending should increase.
"It's time to be problem solvers," said Rep. Tori Arnberger, a conservative Great Bend Republican.
Besides objecting to the level of spending, some conservative Republicans said the court is improperly encroaching on the Legislature's power to determine the state budget.
Conservative GOP Rep. Randy Garber, of Sabetha, argued that problems with public education stem from U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s declaring school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading as unconstitutional.
"If we don't fix society, we won't fix our schools," Garber said in concluding a 13-minute speech. "I say the way to fix our schools is to put prayer and the Bible back and give it a chance."
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