TOPEKA — Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office is exploring financial and logistical details of a special statewide election in mid-April to decide public opinion on an amendment to the Kansas Constitution rewriting the state’s obligation to educate public school children.
Kobach’s staff sent a request to about 15 county election clerks to evaluate requirements of a constitutional amendment vote organized in a manner similar to a gubernatorial election and with turnout ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent.
A December memorandum from the Kansas State Department of Education indicated a statewide vote on school district property tax rates would cost $3.05 million.
Nothing is finalized, but Republican legislative leaders are eager for the 2018 Legislature to advance an amendment designed to erase or weaken language in the constitutional relied upon by plaintiffs to win school-finance cases that prompted larger state investment in K-12 schools. Two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate are needed to place amendments on the ballot, but a simple majority of Kansans voting is sufficient to amend the constitution.
“The more information the Legislature has when a decision is made is good. You want the most information you can have,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said contemplation of the special election in April rather than waiting until the August primary or November general elections suggested intent to undermine Supreme Court rulings that exposed the state government to as much as a $600 million increase in state aid to education.
“The timing shows they’re trying to undercut the court case,” Hensley said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said it was unlikely Speaker Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, could both find the two-thirds majority sweet spot. It would require backing by 27 senators and 84 representatives.
“Ryckman has some magic in his hat, but there aren’t 63 votes for that in the House,” Ward said.
Meanwhile, top leaders of the House and Senate voted Friday to invest another $85,000 for experts capable of helping build an argument that the Legislature’s financial plan for public schools passed constitutional muster.
Approval of the extra expenditure was supported only by Republicans on the Legislative Coordinating Council. It expanded to $485,000 the amount dedicated to attorneys and consultants arguing the Legislature’s position in court.
Earlier this year, the 2017 Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback adopted a law adding $195 million to K-12 education. The Supreme Court followed by declaring overall state aid to be inadequate and allocation of the money unfair. The court’s deadline for a remedy is April 30.
The supplemental $85,000 would pay for independent analysis of educational funding levels and structure by Lori Taylor, professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and economist Jesse Levin, of the American Institutes for Research.
“I like the approach,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton. “AIR — they are very highly regarded, very much nonpolitical.”
Democrats on the LCC questioned whether Taylor and Levin could be objective when evaluating the price of complying with so-called Rose academic standards relied upon by the Supreme Court.
“Her results are her results. Her work is her work,” said Jeff King, hired previously by the LCC to serve as legal counsel on the school-finance case. “Neither I nor anyone else she will ever deal with will dictate what those results will be.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said Taylor’s work was scheduled to be completed by March 15 and Levin would finish some point after that date. The timeline conflicts with a request from the office of Attorney General Derek Schmidt to wrap up the Legislature’s response to the Supreme Court by March 1.
“He’s just going to have to work hard or get the Supreme Court to give him a little bit of slack,” Denning said.