Monday, November 4, 2013

Legislators say big budget cuts to higher ed, other areas would occur if public schools win finance lawsuit

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — Republican legislators are sounding early alarm bells, saying a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court against the state in the school finance lawsuit would result in significant budget cuts, tax increases or both.

In a meeting last week with higher education officials, state Rep. Jerry Lunn, R-Overland Park, put Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little on notice, saying that KU and other universities should prepare for significant decreases in funding if the court orders legislators to increase funding to public schools.

"You really do have a horse in this race," Lunn said to Gray-Little. He suggested that Gray-Little "talk to your friendly Supreme Court justices."

Referring to the court, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said, "Everything is in limbo, or until the 1,000-pound gorilla keeps thumping its chest or goes away."

Democrats have a different take on the situation. They say Republicans have only themselves to blame for following Gov. Sam Brownback down the path of drastically cutting income tax rates and putting the budget on a collision course.

"Where we are now is because of the actions that the Legislature and governor took," said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.

In arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court, Alan Rupe, the attorney representing plaintiff school districts, said legislators cut $511 million per year from schools at the same time they were passing income tax cuts worth $2.5 billion through 2018.

"They instituted a tax cut of $2.5 billion, and they took all of the resources out of the system, and then stand here and plead that they can’t afford to increase spending to schools. That’s the problem that we’re dealing with here," Rupe said.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case later this year or in early 2014. Earlier this year, a three-judge panel ruled that the state unconstitutionally cut funding and owes schools upwards of $500 million per year. Under the Kansas Constitution, the Legislature must provide "suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

If the high court were to uphold the three-judge panel's decision, Lunn said state government functions, including higher education and social services, would face significant budget cuts.

Merrick said he doesn't believe a tax increase is the answer.

"Are we going to go back on the sales tax? I sure don't want that fight again," he said.

During the last legislative session, Brownback pushed to make permanent the 6.3 percent state sales tax, instead of letting it fall to 5.7 percent on July 1, which was required under previous law.

Brownback, a Republican, had said the state may need revenue from the higher levy in case of a ruling against the state in the school finance lawsuit.

But some Republicans in the Republican-majority Legislature wanted to let the sales tax fall back to 5.7 percent. In the end, they agreed to setting it at 6.15 percent.