Senate Republicans, Democrats plunge into weeds for rules scuffle on education funding bill
TOPEKA — The dustup in the Senate over a bill delivering voucher-like funding to Kansas private schools featured zinger one-liners, rival interpretations of an obscure parliamentary rule and allegations Republican leadership engaged in abuse of power.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Lenexa, got the ball rolling Thursday with a motion to call a vote on Senate Bill 83, which was transformed by the House to include a mandate to raise teacher raises, increase funding of special education and establish the Sunflower Education Equity Act. The equity act would create state funded $5,000 savings accounts for low- and middle-income students attending homeschools and private schools.
The bill barely cleared the Kansas House 64-61, despite an 85-40 GOP majority in the chamber. Gov. Laura Kelly equated the bundled bill to a political form of blackmail, suggesting it could be vetoed with little threat of two-thirds majorities required of an override by the Senate and House.
Sykes pressed her case by pointing to “Rule 3B,” which she said provided leverage to compel a snap vote in the Senate on the education bill.
“I do think we should vote,” she said. “I do think this bill was gutted and significantly altered from the way it came out of this chamber.”
Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, disagreed and urged his colleagues to steer the bill into a House-Senate conference committee. His substitute motion would place the bill in hands of six Senate and House negotiators. If compromise was reached by a bipartisan three-senator, three-representative negotiating committee, the deal could be voted on in both chambers without opportunity for amendment.
“I’m in support of this,” said Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican. “A bill of this magnitude, the importance of this subject matter, we need more time to look at it through the conference process.”
A committee hearing?
Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, said he was perplexed by the conference-committee approach outlined by Masterson that apparently would bypass the Senate’s education committee. He suggested the Senate committee, with its subject-matter expertise, ought to evaluate details of the voucher-like initiative and consider other parts of the K-12 package.
“If this bill is of such magnitude, why is the Senate Education Committee not taking a look at it?” Longbine said.
At that point, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the committee, revealed she requested from legislative staff comparative analysis of the Senate’s original Senate Bill 83, which offered low-income scholarships and tax credits to help students enroll in private schools, and the revamped Senate Bill 83 adopted by the House launching the voucher-like system.
For example, Baumgardner said, the Legislature didn’t have a solid grasp on the actual cost to taxpayers of the House’s version of the bill.
“We want to make sure we have as much data as possible,” Baumgardner said. “We make decisions based on real data, not just assumptions.”
Finally, Masterson got his vote to drop the bill into a conference committee. His motion prevailed 21-12, potentially another sign of underwhelming support for the education legislation.
Sykes on rebound
That opened the door for Sykes to renew her call for a Senate vote on merits of the House substitute of Senate Bill 83. Masterson said the only point of such a vote would be to “kind of disrupt the process and slow things down,” because a way would be found to move ahead with the legislation.
McPherson Republican Sen. Rick Wilborn, the Senate’s vice president, said Sykes was too late. The Senate’s request for a conference with the House on the bill was already on its way across the Capitol rotunda, he said.
However, Sykes responded that her motion was still in order because the House hadn’t formally appointed its three members to the negotiating committee.
“The motion to concur is out of order,” Wilborn said.
“This motion is in order,” Sykes said.
“We are going to convene the rules committee,” Wilborn replied.
A lengthy huddle of senators on the rules committee led to a determination Sykes’ motion was out of bounds. Sykes said the situation illustrated reliance by Senate Republicans on interpreting rules for partisan advantage.
“There’s a loophole and they didn’t like it,” Sykes said. “So, they’re going to err on the side of what they want, which happens in this building all the time.”
Her formal challenge of that rules committee’s decision prompted a vote of the full Senate. The Senate upheld the rules committee 22-14, meaning the Senate wouldn’t proceed to an up-or-down vote on the bill.
‘Abuse of power’
Masterson objected to Sykes’ characterization of the way Republican senators handled disputes on procedural matters. In this case, he said, the rules committee sought advice of the Senate clerk and the Legislature’s bill-writing office of the revisor.
“It’s offensive, the contention that was made,” Masterson said. “That’s why we have a parliamentarian to determine any rule that’s in limbo. The majority party even went to the next extent and brought up the revisor of statutes, who concurred with the parliamentarian.”
That rousted Sen. Dennis Pyle, the Hiawatha independent who ran for governor in 2022 and was stripped of committee assignments by Masterson.
He asked Wilborn to order the Senate parliamentarian to identify the text in Robert’s Rules of Order relied upon to declare Sykes’ motion out of order. Wilborn didn’t do so.
“The parliamentarian is not the Senate,” Pyle said. “We have an opportunity to act on our own right now as a Senate body in the interest of what is right and true. Right and true. We should all stand against an abuse of power.”