Rep. Rooker’s 2016 legislative session wrap up: ‘Until we fix our tax code, we will not have resources to provide first class educational opportunities’

Rep. Melissa Rooker.
Rep. Melissa Rooker.

Editor’s note: Throughout the week, we’ll be running columns from northeast Johnson County’s legislators sharing their thoughts on the key takeaways from this year’s regular session. Today we bring you Rep. Melissa Rooker’s thoughts:

As many of you are aware, education policy and finance have been a focus area of mine with regards to the Kansas legislature far longer than my tenure as your elected state representative. My focus on school finance began in 2008 when the economic recession our nation faced derailed the remedy to the 2005 Montoy lawsuit, causing a series of mid-year budget cuts that affected our schools. As the economy recovered, the Kansas legislature instituted a package of tax cuts rather than restoring funding to programs cut during the recession. Gannon v. State of Kansas was filed in 2010 and continues today, having traveled a long and winding path through the Kansas court system, with multiple appeals and remands drawing the process out. On Tuesday, the latest chapter played out at the Kansas Supreme Court.

I attended oral arguments, which lasted two and a half hours. The topic of Tuesday’s hearing was the latest legislative response to the court, HB 2655, which passed on the last day of the regular session this year. On April 6, I wrote in depth on this bill in my newsletter.

It was very clear in arguments that the panel of judges is running out of patience. The main focus of the questions asked had to do with the recommended remedy the court ought to offer. All sides stated that closing schools on June 30 is not a desirable outcome. In addition to the focus on potential remedy, the judges had sharp questions about the disequalizing factor in the new plan – the ability of some to “backfill” the loss of Local Option Budget equalization funds with increased mill levies. In its summary, the state asked the court to consider the severability clause in the new bill and use it to be selective in striking only the parts they find unconstitutional, rather than the entire formula.

I am prepared for the opinion to be issued on a faster than normal schedule to give the legislature time to respond. Based on Tuesday’s arguments, court watchers predict the state will lose this appeal and the legislature will be called back to offer a new plan. Because this is not the adequacy portion of the case, it remains an open question whether a remedy that offers no additional dollars, but rather moves existing dollars around can be deemed equitable.

Throughout all of this, I have been engaged in thoughtful and meaningful conversations with stakeholders in education, as well as the staff of researchers and auditors whose knowledge and experience add insight into the development of a new funding formula. Drafting a new plan is a very solvable problem, but the real issue is finding money to properly fund such a plan. The only way we will get to a workable solution is to expand the discussion to include tax and budget policy as well. Until and unless we fix the structural problem in our tax code, get back on track with real revenue reform, and stabilize our budget, we will not have the resources necessary to provide first class educational opportunities for the 487,000 school age children in Kansas.