Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley seized on the failure of House Republicans to find support for their school finance plan as lawmakers began negotiations Monday in search of a solution that will satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court.
The talks feature a showdown between House leaders who want to install a fleet of policy demands on public schools and Senate leaders who simply added a $90 million inflation adjustment to the $525 million increase passed a year ago.
Last year's funding boost was supposed to be phased in over five years, but a House committee led by Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, crafted a proposal that eliminated two years of increases and attached strings to the $90 million in new money. House leadership declined put that bill to a vote in front of the full chamber because it lacked enough support to pass.
Instead, the House adopted policy legislation with hopes of bargaining for changes in the way money is spent.
Hensley, a Topeka Democrat with 42 years of experience in the Legislature, dismissed an assertion by Williams that she could rely on her committee's position as lawmakers look for a middle ground.
"As long as I've been around here," Hensley said, "you have a position either in the Senate or the House that has actually passed the floor on final action."
The House's failure to pass a funding bill gives leverage to the Senate, which secured 32-8 passage of a plan that matches the recommendation of Gov. Laura Kelly.
Williams said she didn't "give full credit to the idea that we don't have a position just because it did not pass on the House floor."
"It also would be fair to say that we have the policy position and the two hand-in-hand gives us an equal footing to negotiate something of substance," Williams said.
The difference is lawmakers face a high court mandate to fix inflation in last year's plan. They don't have to make any policy changes.
Lawmakers have a mid-April deadline for the attorney general's office to present arguments to the supreme court. That means the Legislature needs to pass a funding bill before adjourning at the end of this week.
"I guess we're going to negotiate some sort of funding solution here," Hensley said, "but it better be closer to what the Senate proposed than what the House has not passed. That's what it comes down to."
The Senate made a handful of concessions, agreeing to incorporate House proposals to pay for all high school students to take ACT tests and to ask Legislative Post Audit to study school cash balances.
Williams then asked the Senate to accept a change in the way funding is handled for at-risk students, leading to a testy exchange with Hensley.
In a series of questions, Hensley asked if the House had voted on the at-risk change or debated it on the floor. He knew the answer was no because the proposal was part of the abandoned House Bill 2395.
"As I already answered you," Williams said, "we did not debate 2395, and that answer to that question will remain the same every time you ask."
When the talk turned to the total funding picture, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who led the Senate committee in charge of school finance, refused to give up ground.
Rather than put the $90 million inflation figure into base aid, giving schools control over how it is spent, Williams said the supreme court could accept a plan that targets money for students who need it most. Williams questioned how the Senate plan would help close the achievement gap.
Baumgardner told her the Senate tried to target funds with policy last year, but the House gutted the plan and just added money. Now, Baumgardner said, the Senate position is what the supreme court wants.
"That's why we're sticking pretty firm to it," Baumgardner said. "We feel that it's not just us, it's not just the (32 senators) who voted for it. We have Legislative Research, we have legislative revisers, we have the Department of Education and we have the governor's budget committee that are saying, 'Yes, this is what we believe is the court's ask.' "
Both sides agreed to disregard the about-face from Schools for Fair Funding, which initially supported the $90 million increase, then asked for $270 million more.
Lawmakers are scheduled to resume talks Tuesday morning.