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Kansas Senate GOP Leader Proposes Utility Fee To Help Fund Schools

Kansas News Service/ File Photo
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, says he'll propose a monthly fee on utility bills to help fund education. Denning estimates the fee would raise $150 million a year.

A Republican leader in the Kansas Senate says he’ll propose a fee on all utility bills in the state to help fund education.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, says his plan calls for a $3 monthly fee on residential electric, gas and water bills in the state. Those with all three utilities would pay $9 more a month. For commercial customers, the monthly fee would be $10 per bill.

The whole package would raise $150 million a year, Denning estimates.

“I guess it is regressive, but on the other side it is very broad,” Denning says. “Everybody wants to pay for their schools. I’m convinced of that.”

The Legislature returns to work Monday with every big issue, including school finance, still unresolved. Lawmakers have to close a projected $900 million budget gap over the next two fiscal years and find millions more for public education to satisfy the state Supreme Court.

Denning says a utility fee is not only broad but manageable and stable.

“Schools take well over 50 percent of our budget,” he says. “So I want something that’s consistent, and the utility fee would be very consistent.”

While Denning says he’s fine with the regressive nature of the fee, other lawmakers are not.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka, says the fee will be a “difficult sell” in the Legislature.

“To put a surcharge on utility bills would be a hardship for the elderly on a fixed income,” he says.

Hensley says he would rather raise income taxes “to not only balance our budget but put an extra $150 million a year” into K-12 public education.

While the Senate has no school funding plan on the table, the House is working on a bill that would add $150 million a year into school funding over the next five years for a total of $750 million.

Details of Denning’s utility fee plan are just beginning to dribble out. Many senators say they haven’t heard about the idea.

Sen. John Skubal, an Overland Park Republican who serves on the Ways and Means Committee with Denning, says the utility fee is regressive, but with the state’s budget issues lawmakers need to consider all ideas.

“I’ll have to study it,” he says.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.