The 2018 state Legislature faces tough decisions with school funding at the top.
With the 2018 legislative session starting on Jan. 8, legislators are gearing up for what will certainly be a challenging session.
School funding, expanding Medicaid, funding KPERS, replacing a Lansing Correctional Facility building constructed in the 1860s, adding a new building at Osawatomie State Mental Hospital, expanding the number of Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents are all issues legislators will have to face during the session, said Rep. Greg Lewis, District 113 Republican.
Education takes the biggest portion of the state's revenues. The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that state funding for education does not meet the adequate funding requirement. A problem the Legislature faces is the Supreme Court has not given an exact amount necessary to meet that obligation. The number that keeps getting thrown around is $600 million but in order to meet that amount, it would mean some deep cuts. If cuts were made across the board to meet that amount, the judicial system would have to shut down for 70 days, three prisons would have to close and 2,400 convicted felons would have to be released to meet the 18 percent cut in funding necessary to meet that $600 million mark.
"It would that kind of cut to raise that kind of dollars," Lewis said. "It will be a challenge to get there."
One thing that would help meet the education needs is making funding increases over a period of years rather than all at once.
A constitutional amendment to get away from constant law suits for school funding was proposed but it was thrown out.
The Supreme Court said 25 percent of Kansas students are falling through the cracks. To counter act that, it would require either more personnel or smaller groups. But with numbers like this, something has to be done.
"We definitely need to do better," Lewis said. "It's coming up with funding that's difficult. The extra money is just not there."
A tax increase would bring in more revenue but after the Legislature reversed Gov. Brownback's tax cuts in 2012 to the LLCs, the Legislature probably has no stomach to push for a tax increase in 2018 especially in an election year for all state representatives, Lewis said.
"I just don't see us going down that road again," Lewis said.
While the task is difficult, there is some positive news. Since the tax repeal last year, state revenues are up above projected levels. It's not a cure for state revenue problems but revenues are going up a little each month.
"We're still well below where we were in 2012 when the tax cuts were first made but I feel like we're on the right track," Lewis. said.
While the Legislature won't be able to solve all the state revenue issues, it's important that they start down the road to getting the projects underway.
"I don't know how far we can go down those roads but we need to start," Lewis said.
Getting started in 2018 will be a challenge. All representatives are up for election and Kansans will elect a new governor. Lewis said he expects a lot of projects to be in limbo until the state has a new governor in place.
Working on a building at Lansing or at Osawatomie will probably involve a bond issue and there has been some talk about privatization. What ever happens, the Legislature won't have to come up all the money at once.
Expanding Medicaid is a crucial task. There are 150,000 to 160,000 Kansans without insurance because they simply can't afford to pay for it. That means their health care needs are met in hospital emergency rooms. Hospitals have to take them in but they are not getting paid for their services.
Most hospitals operate on extremely low profit margins. Expanding Medicaid wouldn't fix the problem entirely but it's certainly part of the equation that also depends on what the federal government does.
How the 2018 legislative session works out is hard to forecast but legislators have to at least get things moving towards a solution, Lewis said.