Capitol Update: ‘Drama supersedes progress’ on K-12 funding fix, says Rep. Lusk

The Kansas House of Representatives.

Each legislative session, we provide the Shawnee Mission area’s elected officials with the chance to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Nancy Lusk, Rep. Randy Powell and Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook are scheduled to send updates this week. (Rep. Powell declined to submit an update for today, but said he plans to participate in future opportunities). Here’s Rep. Lusk’s filing:

Rep. Nancy Lusk.

I am pleased to be among this year’s expanded list of legislators who will be contributing Capitol Updates to the Shawnee Mission Post. Now in my sixth year in the Kansas House, I find the depth and breadth of issues we cover in the legislature to be more interesting and engaging than ever, and I am honored to serve the 22th District as its representative.

Drama supersedes progress on K-12 School Finance: I serve on the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, which is the committee with the primary responsibility of figuring out a resolution to the $600 million a year shortfall in K-12 education funding. In the ongoing lawsuit against the state for inadequately and unfairly funding public schools, the Kansas Supreme Court has found that the funding level passed by the legislature last session was insufficient.

Unfortunately, tactics of delay, distraction and discredit seem to be the main components of legislative leadership’s strategy to sidestep the state’s responsibility to fully fund K-12 education. We are 26 days into the current session of the legislature, and yet the House K-12 Education Budget Committee on which I served has only met four times, and then only for informational meetings, no hearings.

The Kansas Supreme Court set a deadline of for the legislature to come up with a funding fix by April 30. The Kansas Attorney General has requested that the legislature finish by March 1 so that they may have time to prepare the state’s case. The Senate Education Committee has requested a new study, but it will not be turned in until March 15th. I am reminded of the Johnny Cash song title, “Time’s A Wasting.”

The latest drama in the school finance debate is led by Senator Jim Denning and legislative leadership. They are calling for a portion of the transportation aid received by 25 of the largest school districts to be returned. Their proposal would impact the Shawnee Mission School District with a $1.1M loss in funding for the current fiscal year.

At dispute is a calculation practice in the school finance formula which provided some school districts additional transportation funding not authorized by law over the past three decades. Hardly a secret to any legislators who have served on an education budget committee, the method was considered a fair compromise because it avoided discrimination against high-density urban school districts like the Shawnee Mission School District, and ensured students were transported to school safely.

The complaints by conservatives are that the practice never made it into law, and therefore, by their rationale, makes it “unlawful” and the aid should be returned. Making the practice official by codifying it in to stature would not be a big deal, and Rep. Melissa Rooker has already filed a bill to make it law. For a further explanation of the calculation method in question, check out KASB Mark Tallman’s blog.

Let’s put this in perspective – the legislature frequently disregards state law in other aspects of school funding. If the letter of the law is to be interpreted so strictly as to justify the demand to return the extra payments, then the state should be consistent, and pay the $70M it owes to the districts for shortfalls for costs in transportation, special education, the state’s share of KPERS, in-service professional development, and food services as required by law.

This year the transportation costs of Shawnee Mission School District were $4.4 million, of which the state only covered $3 million even though it is obligated by the constitution to cover the full costs. Each year the district must make up the difference by taking money from classrooms and other operational funds. By the letter of the law, the state owes SMSD $1.4 million more than it paid in the current fiscal year (and that is only counting the shortfall in transportation aid and not of the other areas).

How does it make sense for SMSD to return $1.1 million of the $3 million it received in transportation aid when the state should have paid SMSD the full $4.4 million to start with?

“Are you pro-earthquake or anti-earthquake?”: This is the question that I and Rep. Mary Martha Good of El Dorado will be asking our fellow legislators this week as we inquire who wants to co-sponsor legislation to reduce man-made earthquakes in Kansas.

Before last year we did not know for certain what was causing the dramatic spike in earthquakes in the past few years, but now with new information we do. The U.S. Geological Survey study of March 2017 says all recent Oklahoma and Kansas earthquakes are caused by injection (related to fracking). A new scientific technique developed at Stanford can definitively distinguish between man-made and natural quakes based on wave pattern.

When the current Kansas Corporation Commission regulations were written, the causal connection between high-pressure injection and earthquakes was not understood. We need safe, uniform regulation across the state of injection wells, along with improvements to the KCC notification process to the public when permits of such wells are granted.

Limit caps set by the KCC last year on the injection-volume of waste water into wells in south central Kansas have greatly reduced the number of earthquakes, and shows that the KCC knows how to stop earthquakes. They need to go further. We need to get back to zero to three per year on average, not several hundred.

Currently, if a private home or a public building suffers serious earthquake damage, the home owner or taxpayers are on the hook to pay for repairs, instead of those who profit from injection wells. The legislation would establish a trust fund for the KCC, to be paid into by the well owners – calculated at $.01 per 100 barrels of injection – which would fund program administration of well data and monitoring, water testing, and grants to uncompensated earthquake victims. Another part of the proposal would have the owners buy liability insurance, just as we all do for the privilege of driving a car; it would be protection not only for future victims of damage, but for the oil and gas industry, too.

Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions. My statehouse office number is 54-S, and my office phone is 785-296-7651. My email address is nancy.lusk@house.ks.gov. I am also working to keep constituents informed via Facebook.