Editorial: Utility fee is the wrong way to fund education in Kansas

Lawmakers need to pass a comprehensive tax package that will fund K-12 schools

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R - Overland Park, answers questions from reporters following a meeting a special Senate committee on school funding that he leads, Wednesday, May 17, 2017, at the Statehouse in Topeka. Denning is pushing for a surcharge on water, electric and natural gas bills to help provide extra funds for public schools. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Lawmakers have until June 30 to develop a school finance plan that will be deemed adequate by the Kansas Supreme Court, but the most recent proposals haven’t been promising. Earlier this week, the House K-12 Budget Committee advanced a bill that would raise education funding by $450 million, but members of the committee recognized that this probably wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the court. Now Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning has proposed a fee on utility bills to generate $150 million for the state’s schools — $2.25 per month on each residential bill and $10 per month on commercial bills.

 

Denning says this surcharge would provide a more stable source of school funding than the state general fund: “The Kansas SGF appears, from all of my budget work, it cannot handle the stress of K-12 funding. When we have a dip in recession, a decline in oil and gas, a decline in agriculture, everything comes apart at the seams.” However, much the recent volatility in the state general fund has been caused by Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts. This is the primary reason why Kansas has consistently generated revenue that failed to meet the projections issued by the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group over the past few years.

When Brownback appointed a task force to determine how to improve the reliability of revenue estimates last year, chairman Sam Williams said the tax cuts made the process unpredictable: “In our opinion, when there’s a significant tax policy change, the system breaks down.” The state’s ability to pay for core services and maintain a balanced budget has also broken down over the past four years, which is why the Legislature needs to pass a tax package that will bring in enough revenue to cover its expenses — including K-12 funding. To most Kansans, this is an obvious solution — but the Legislature seems intent on considering everything else first.

Unlike the income taxes that replenish the state general fund, a utility fee will have a disproportionate impact on low- and middle-income Kansans — particularly if the Legislature votes to restore the third bracket this session. The state general fund is a more equitable way to pay for K-12 education.

This is an argument House Minority Leader Jim Ward made in a recent op-ed on this page: “It’s time the Legislature steps up and enacts comprehensive income tax reform and stops relying on regressive taxes that weaken our middle class.” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley noted another problem with the utility fee: the revenue it generates could be pulled out to cover future shortfalls — something that routinely happens to the state’s highway fund.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills who serves on the Senate education committee, agrees that the utility fee is a regressive tax and says she would rather fund education with income tax revenue. However, she’s worried that legislators will be forced to support the utility fee if they don’t have any other options at the end of the session. This is the scenario we’ve been warning legislators about: they’ve vacillated for so long that the space for meaningful negotiation is rapidly vanishing.

No matter how much money finally gets pumped into the state’s education system, a utility fee isn’t the way to raise it.

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.

 

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