GOP leaders in Kansas back off threat to sue Democratic governor over education funding

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Leaders of Kansas' Republican-controlled Legislature backed off a threat to sue the state's Democratic governor for vetoing parts of a GOP education funding bill, saying Thursday that they still doubt the legality of her actions but now question whether a court challenge would be worth it.

Gov. Laura Kelly nixed items in a $6 billion measure that provides the bulk of the funding for public K-12 schools for the 2023-24 school year. The vetoes changed how state funds are distributed to protect rural schools, though the move helped a majority of the state's 286 local districts and took funds away from only 25 of them, according to State Department of Education data.

Kelly also didn't touch the only school choice initiative that divided Republicans were able to pass this year, expanding an existing program for private school scholarships of up to $8,000 a year for low-income public school students. While public education groups strongly opposed it, some GOP conservatives had hoped to pass the kind of sweeping plan to use state education dollars to help parents pay for private or home schooling that states such as Iowa,South Carolina and Utah enacted.

Republican leaders contend that Kelly exceeded the power granted to governors under the Kansas Constitution to veto individual spending items in budget bills. The education funding bill mixed spending with policy, and Kelly deleted six pages of language and also made a technical adjustment at the end of the bill.

Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, told reporters Thursday at the Statehouse that GOP leaders initially feared she would go after more parts of the bill.

“I don’t know that it’s worth the fight now,” Masterson said. “I don’t think we’re going to do anything with this one.”

When Kelly announced her vetoes last week, Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, called on GOP Attorney General Kris Kobach to review them, suggesting they were poised for a lawsuit.

Kelly's actions rejected a GOP-backed change for local school districts with declining student numbers — more than half of them. The state distributes its dollars with a per-student formula, so funding drops as enrollments decline, but the state phases in the decrease over several years.

The GOP change would have allowed less time for districts to adjust to a funding loss, and top Republicans contend the move would have helped growing districts. But Hawkins said in a statement that the issue “can probably be addressed in a more efficient way” than suing Kelly.

The governor told reporters Thursday after a Statehouse event that she believes the six pages she vetoed “clearly” represented a budget item.

She said she wasn't sure she could go after other parts of the bill, "and I didn’t want to test it out.”

Kelly's vetoes benefitted more than 150 districts, giving them more state funds than they would have received otherwise, according to State Department of Education data. More than 100 others saw no difference.

Kansas has boosted aid to public schools over the past decade, with an increase of about 3% coming for 2023-24. Even with fewer students across much of the state, only 10 districts will receive less aid overall than they did in 2022-23. All of those have fewer than 500 students, and four have fewer than 100.

Without Kelly's vetoes, 29 districts would have received less money overall than in 2022-23.

“If they continue to put really bad policy in appropriations bills, you know, I probably will continue to line-item (veto them),” the governor said.

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