Area legislators meet constituents at forum

6/28/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

During Thursday night's Kansas legislative wrap-up forum presented by the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, a question about education funding and a looming lawsuit about it caused several legislators to raise the prospect of a potential constitutional crisis over the issue.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court ruled in January that the state's system for funding public schools was unconstitutional. The ruling suggested the state was shortchanging public schools by at least $440 million.

Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, said if the state is handed a bill for $440 million to meet what a lower court said was necessary to fund education, there likely will be a pretty strong fight in the Legislature opposing the Kansas Supreme Court.

"And perhaps even bringing it to the point of a constitutional crisis," he said. "There's a significant group of members who suggest that the Supreme Court, by making a decision, is appropriating dollars when they don't have the authority to do that."

Jennings said there could be a move to keep the state treasurer from distributing funds to public schools, creating a school crisis and basically forcing the Legislature to address the funding issue.

"Personally, I don't think that's a great way to go," he said.

Rep. John Doll, R-Garden City, said there's no question the state will lose the education funding lawsuit and that there really isn't a Plan B. Next January, Doll expects the Legislature is going to have to come up with the money.

"What scares me with the current climate going on in Topeka now is some of the services that are going to be cut," Doll said. "A lot of these cuts are going to come back to you guys. I'm not optimistic."

Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, also thinks the state is headed for a constitutional crisis, based on remarks made to him by other legislators and by comments made in the press that are "basically daring the courts to make that decision."

Hineman also thinks the state will lose the court case and will have to come up with $440 million — or more — per year.

"It's possible they could come back with a higher number yet," Hineman said. "Where that money is going to come from, I don't have a clue. We're setting up for a real crisis. A staring match between the Legislature and the courts that can't be healthy and will have numerous negative consequences."

What concerns Hineman the most is what comes after the Legislature finishes with "wailing and gnashing of teeth" and pays the money. The next step will be to discuss changing the school finance formula, something that likely would mean rural Kansas schools would lose out to urban schools.

"I'm very concerned about that. If that happens, that's going to be another lawsuit on the grounds of equity and equal access of education," he said.

On other issues, Finney County Commissioner Larry Jones thanked legislators for working to save the oil and gas depletion trust fund from elimination. The trust fund allows counties to access money when oil and gas valuations decline.

Hineman said there are 69 counties in the state, not all in western Kansas, that also didn't want to see the trust fund go away.

"It was a tough fight," he said. "We saved most of it. It's not quite as good as it used to be, but we saved most of it for the time being. I think that's going to be an annual fight."

Another question dealt with the state's new law that goes into effect Monday to allow people with concealed carry permits to carry handguns into public buildings.

Jennings said while he supports second amendment rights, he does have concerns about insurance companies that have said they may not provide coverage or increase rates due to implementation of the law.

"I don't feel it's appropriate for any federal or state government to impose upon local governments unfunded mandates. And this is the consequence of what we've done," Jennings said.

Jennings expects the Legislature will need to take another look at the law. However, he added that he is not naive enough to think that concealed guns, even without a permit, aren't being carried in and out of courthouses or other public buildings across the state regardless of the law.

"It's the people that are criminals who carry guns with them all the time. It's the drug dealers, the gang members, who always have a weapon. I can assure you they don't care about a sign that says don't bring them in," Jennings said.

Doll said concealed carry and public building security is the type of issue that should be handled at the local level.

"Garden City or Ingalls or Lakin is much different than Wyandotte, or Wichita Heights," he said.

The legislative wrap-up also featured former Rep. Brian Weber of Dodge City and his replacement, newly sworn Rep. Bud Estes.

Weber, who resigned from the Legislature to spend more time with his family and his business, is moving to Garden City, where he is originally from.

"There's some good things that happened this session. Those are some of the last things I did before I left. If there were some things you didn't like or disagreed with, those are things I wasn't part of," Weber quipped.

Estes, a John Deere dealer, farmer and former mayor of Bucklin for 14 years, said western Kansas has been good for his family, so he jumped at the chance to give back to the community when Weber's seat opened.

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