Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Statehouse Live: Republican leaders considering constitutional change to thwart school finance ruling

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said Monday that Republican leaders are considering putting a constitutional amendment on the April 2 ballot aimed at thwarting a court-ordered increase in school funding.

The discussion is in response to last week's ruling by a three-judge panel that the Kansas Legislature has failed its constitutional duty to provide adequate school funding.

The panel said the Legislature must fulfill its earlier promise to fund base state aid at $4,492 per pupil, which would require a $440 million increase. Base state aid is now at $3,838 per pupil.

The judges also criticized the state's arguments that it had to cut school funding during the recession but then cut taxes.

Republican legislative leaders have decried the decision.

"We clearly disagree with the courts," said Wagle on the first day of the 2013 legislative session. "We believe they have overstepped their boundaries. We believe they should not be appropriators and that that role should be clearly left in the hands of elected officials."

Attorney General Derek Schmidt has filed notice to appeal the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court.

A constitutional change must be adopted by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and be approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election.

To get any measure on the April ballot, the proposal would have to win approval in the Legislature in early February.

The education article of the Kansas Constitution commands legislators to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

The Supreme Court has said in rulings in 2005 and 2006 that lawmakers must finance an adequate education for every child, keep up with rising educational costs and ensure that schools continually improve.

Wagle said there have been discussions among Republicans on possible amendments that would either remove the "suitable provision" or more specifically spell out that the Legislature is in charge of school finance.

In addition, Republicans are considering a proposed constitutional amendment that would give Gov. Sam Brownback more power in selecting appellate judges.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said he was open to proposals to changing the constitution.

"When you amend the constitution, it's giving the public a chance to vote, and I'm always for letting them express their opinion at the ballot box," Merrick said.

But Karen Godfrey, president of the Kansas National Education Association, said the Legislature should restore cuts that have been made to schools over the past few years.

"We've had lots of indications that our education system needs new funding and I think it's time for us to face up to that and quit trying to work around it," Godfrey said.

But Republican legislative leaders said the increase required by the court ruling would result in a tax increase. They said they want schools to be held more acceptable and provide better outcomes.

"There's a lot of issues that need to be looked at. It's not just about money," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City.