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Passage of Kansas school funding hike highlights GOP split

By JOHN HANNA, AP Political Writer
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators approved an increase in spending on the state’s public schools in hopes of meeting a court mandate after the rancorous final days of debate highlighted deep divisions among top Republicans.
Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer publicly endorsed a bill that would phase in a $534 million increase in education funding over five years, siding with GOP leaders in the state House who largely drafted it. Attorney General Derek Schmidt, another Republican, had joined Colyer in pressuring legislators to act over the past week.
But the plan passed did not feel like a compromise to the Senate’s GOP leaders, who favored a plan to phase in a $274 million increase over the same five years. They argued that the bigger plan approved early Sunday and sent to Colyer would force lawmakers to raise taxes within two years.
“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.
The Kansas action comes amid tumult in many red states over the issue of school funding. An ongoing teacher strike in Oklahoma is part of a movement that also has included action by educators in West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.
Dozens of Kansas teachers, many wearing red shirts, converged on the Statehouse, camped out for hours and cheered after the Senate approved the bill, 21-19, early Sunday. The House had passed the bill Saturday, 63-56.
“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 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. The court gave Schmidt until April 30 to report on how legislators responded.
Colyer and 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 all of the Senate’s nine Democrats voted for it. 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.”
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.
Senate GOP leaders had excoriated a previous, similarly sized plan from the House as likely to force higher and had hoped to talk the House into accepting less spending. In turn, its GOP negotiators felt they had found the right size.
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.
“We haven’t had the collective backbone to stand our ground,” said Rep. Randy Powell, a conservative Olathe Republican.
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, which they did.
But the dispute among Republicans became heated enough that the Legislature’s annual session came close to ending abruptly at midnight Saturday.
Saturday was the 90th day since lawmakers opened their session in January, the limit set in the state constitution. Two-thirds majorities in both chambers were required to pass a resolution for lawmakers to work past midnight Saturday and reconvene April 26 to wrap up budget matters and other issues. It’s normally a routine matter.
Had the session ended at midnight, all pending legislation would have died immediately. And GOP leaders remained at odds over the text of the resolution until two minutes before midnight, when a Senate version won the House’s approval.
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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna