By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
Kansas lawmakers began groundwork Monday for their response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to fix school finance by this spring. The same day, a Hiawatha senator announced he will seek to curb the court’s powers through a constitutional amendment.
Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle issued a news release saying the judiciary should not be allowed to close schools — a possible outcome if the Legislature fails to comply with the high court’s October ruling.
“Decision-making is best left to locally elected officials who are closest to the people, not bureaucrats or judges in Topeka,” Pyle said. “Unilaterally closing all schools based upon a lawsuit brought by a handful of districts is an extreme measure and is a bullying tactic at least.”
Amending the state constitution would take a two-thirds vote in each chamber and a majority vote in a public election.
Sobering budget projections
Pyle’s news release came a few hours into the first meeting of a House-Senate panel tasked with mulling options in the wake of the court order. Pyle isn’t on the committee.
The committee members received sobering state budget projections on their first day of work. Legislative staff presented estimates for the next several years that said the state would need to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending in 2020 and following years to make ends meet and curb the practice of diverting money from the state’s highway fund and pension liability.
The projections don’t factor in the effect of increased spending on K-12 schools, but lawmakers wouldn’t say whether more tax hikes are likely. Any increases would come on the heels of a $1.2 billion tax increase earlier this year.
“I don’t know,” Ottawa Republican Rep. Blaine Finch said. “That’s up to the Legislature as a whole, but it would seem from the opinion that the court is demanding some additional expenditure of funds.”
Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat, said the budget projection presented Monday was a conservative one.
“I think there are some things that might improve the situation,” he said, “but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, of Overland Park, expressed concern the projections only showed around $100 million in annual tax revenue growth. If lawmakers want to add $200 million or more to schools in the next budget year and years after that, he said, they’ll have to find a way to pay for it.
“Plus the rest of the state gets frozen — no (additional) money for Medicaid, no money for prisons,” he said. “Those are the kind of things that need to get fleshed out.”
The October court ruling declared current state aid out of compliance with Kansas’ obligation to fund public schools. It set an April 30 deadline for lawmakers to address the situation and file written arguments showing they have done so. The ruling stems from a seven-year lawsuit sponsored by dozens of school districts.
Pyle was in the Senate in the summer of 2005, when lawmakers struggled to meet a similar court order during a special session.
Frustrated by the order then that Kansas add about $285 million for the coming school year, he and 13 other senators co-sponsored a resolution to bar the judiciary from interfering in school finance.
It was one of multiple proposals to rein in court powers that year by tweaking the constitution, but none made it to a public vote.
The committee may take a closer look at potential constitutional amendments later this month. Members signaled varying appetites for that Monday.
“I seriously doubt there are votes there to pass a constitutional amendment,” Trimmer said. “I don’t think it’s a realistic proposal. I think we just need to do what’s right, figure out a way to fund this.”
Denning indicated Attorney General Derek Schmidt is also working on constitutional amendment language for lawmakers.
“I think I’ve been very clear I would look at a constitutional amendment,” Denning said.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, of Dighton, couldn’t point to a proposal that he would support but said “it’s worth having the conversation.”
“Whether we can reach agreement on language of what that amendment would say and how it would operate is a pretty large question,” he said, because securing a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate is “a pretty tall bar.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.