Bill To Get Judiciary Out Of Kansas School Spending Advances

Apr 5, 2018
Originally published on April 5, 2018 11:27 am

A push to elbow the judiciary out of school spending by rewording the Kansas Constitution cleared a legislative committee Wednesday.

Yet the effort likely won’t get a full House vote this week and could be doomed on a roll call.

It’ll need two-thirds support in both the House and Senate, something that may prove even harder after Democrats and moderate Republicans swept up more seats in the 2016 elections.

A new group formed last week to support the amendment will press on. It has the ear of some top-ranking lawmakers.

“A positive vote in the House and the Senate is very possible,” said John Donley, a lobbyist for the group. “A positive vote by the people is very possible as well.”

House Majority Leader Don Hineman said not to expect his chamber to act on the amendment this week.

That turns the focus Thursday toward the Senate. It will vote on school finance even though conservative Republican leaders there had previously said that would only happen if the constitutional amendment first passes the Legislature.

Tensions among high-ranking Republicans spilled out in a Wednesday evening news release. Senate leaders blamed their short-lived ultimatum on House leadership. The statement berated House Speaker Ron Ryckman for “wasting two days” and blocking a House vote on changing the constitution.

But Ryckman can reasonably expect the measure to tank. Even a small number of Republicans refusing to back it would doom it to the trash heap.

“I can tell you, it will not pass the House,” Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker told the Kansas News Service on this week’s Statehouse Blend podcast.

The push for a constitutional amendment drew hours of impassioned testimony this week. When it came time to vote a week after the proposal sprung up, Democrats and some moderate Republicans decried the process as a rush job.

Democratic Rep. John Carmichael of Wichita said he knows of no other examples where courts are barred by a constitution from enforcing part of that document. Opening that door, he said, “impinges on the balance of powers.”

That’s the same argument some legal experts made against a similar push more than a decade ago. They said it would be better to delete the state’s school funding obligation from the constitution rather than adding a sentence that makes the promise unenforceable.

But those who favored the amendment urged their colleagues to let the public decide.

“People need to have an opportunity,” Republican Rep. Leonard Mastroni said, “to consider a new amendment that may fit the needs of our society today more so than maybe fifty years ago.”

Kansans added language to the state constitution in 1966 promising “suitable” state funding for public schools. Some lawmakers have long said the courts have overinterpreted the wording.

Time and again, the courts have sided with school districts who say the quarter of Kansas students struggling with math and reading are evidence that schools need more resources.

The amendment lawmakers are considering would ban courts from weighing in on the overall funding levels. Schools would still be able to sue, proponents say, on whether funding is distributed fairly among richer and poorer districts.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jeff Colyer revealed he supports both the amendment and a $500 million school funding plan that passed the House this week.

Colyer argued the increase is possible without a tax hike and could address last fall’s Kansas Supreme Court ruling that declared current funding inadequate. That order came from the same part of the constitution that some lawmakers now want to change. He said it’s time to ask voters if they want the judiciary out of school finance for good.

“I’m the tenth governor that has been under this litigation,” he said. “It’s time to get this over.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ

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