Framing decisions

Syndicated to Kansas newspapers March 6, 2017

Martin HawverThe Kansas Supreme Court has finally issued its opinion on adequacy of financing public schools, and while the justices didn’t put a pricetag on what it will cost, already the low-ball estimates are about $535 million and the big estimates are in the $700 million-and-up range.
Now, that’s got nothing to do with the state budget deficit of about $270 million to finish out this fiscal year on June 30 with at least a couple bucks in the bank, which hasn’t been dealt with yet. Starting July 1, the state is going to need another $500 million or so for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget just to keep its doors open.
It also has little to do with tax plans—mostly income tax rate increases, or reimposing taxes on non-wage income of LLCs and the like just to keep government in business for the next couple years.
Nope, it’s a whole different deal. That’s where the decision—framed in terms of adequate spending on K-12 public schools to enable all Kansas students to grow up with good skills that will make them ready for further study or job training and eventually to living somewhere beside their parents’ basements—demands more spending of money we don’t have yet.
That’s where the remainder of this session might get interesting, and we’re going to see how well lawmakers frame their decisions.
There are two parts of this job handed to the Legislature.
One job is to come up with a new school finance formula to do what the Supreme Court wants done and then to have someone figure out what it would cost. Lots of room for guessing there, and while legislators can write a plan, somehow the court is going to have to figure out whether that plan will actually improve the outcome of schools in the state.
Not sure how the court determines that the plan is what it wants but the justices will figure it out somehow. The next job for lawmakers is to pay for that plan while struggling to finance the rest of state government.
The court decision apparently opens the door to property taxes which generally are used for local government and school funding—not general state government expenditures.
The current statewide mill levy for K-12 education is 20 mills. That’s $20 per $1,000 of valuation of property. And, that 20-mill levy to the state for use for K-12 education started back in 1998, so most folks are familiar with it.
Now, that’s just the K-12 levy for the state which is returned to school districts. Local school boards levy their own property taxes within the districts, and those vary widely depending on the valuation of property, of local option budgets, bonds for new schools and probably some other stuff.
But, that 20-mill levy…we’ve nearly forgotten about it because it comes on the same bill from the county with whatever taxes every other local unit of government has authority to levy. That 20-mill levy is usually a small fraction of your total tax bill.
Well, nothing is certain yet, but you might keep an eye on that little 20-mill levy because it’s a relatively easy way to raise money for schools and it just goes on that property tax bill. We’re relatively certain that lawmakers can pass a law to make sure that any increase in that tax isn’t printed in red, or maybe larger type, or with arrows pointing to it.
Oh, and back when the 20-mill levy was authorized in 1998? It was a tax cut, from 27 mills the year before, and a couple years of 35 mills. Anyone remember those property tax cuts on behalf of public education?
So…while legislators try to fix the current budget shortfall for this fiscal year and pile on taxes to balance the budget for the next couple years, let’s remember that property taxes are likely to be part of the mix for meeting increased spending to support public schools.
We’ll see how that goes…

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