The looming problem of recalibrating the school finance formula was the top topic at the Legislative Coffee session at St. Catherine Hospital on Saturday, and legislators say there might be a big push for a constitutional amendment that would limit or negate the Supreme Court’s authority on such issues.
To that prospect, State Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, said, “I don’t think that has a rat’s chance in cold hell to pass.”
Wheeler, who was joined at Saturday's session by State Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, and State Rep. Steve Alford, R-Ulysses, said two options have been set forth — one by a conservative legislative cadre and another by the state attorney general.
According to Wheeler, recent committee meetings have outlined the amendment as the only solution to the school finance conundrum that doesn’t directly involve shifting money from the many gutted agencies and services in Kansas to meet the Supreme Court’s evanescent standard of acceptability.
One of the proposals, Wheeler said, has come from the most conservative wing of the Legislature, both House and Senate, and would involve removing the Kansas Supreme Court from issues of school finance entirely.
“I believe if we do that, we in western Kansas will suffer greatly,” he said. “The smaller school districts will suffer greatly. Nobody will have any oversight in that area.”
The overall criticism of the funding formula issued in the Supreme Court’s October ruling was that it was not “constitutionally adequate and equitable” enough for the “hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”
The second proposal put forth by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Wheeler said, involves resolving the Supreme Court’s judgment before tackling a constitutional amendment that would ultimately do nothing to change it.
“They are unrelated,” Wheeler said. “We can amend the Constitution any way we want to. It won’t affect this judgment. I think some believe it will, but it won’t.”
When asked by an attendee if Wheeler thinks the Supreme Court is operating within its jurisdiction, he said he thinks it is.
“The constitutional provision is very vague,” he said. “It worked back in the day when we had smaller school districts… but it is written in a fashion that almost anything can be covered.”
Still, Wheeler was not without criticism. He said lawmakers were tasked with reformulating the school finance formula on the basis of adequacy, not equitability, which he says was not a factor before the court.
“I think that was wrong,” he said. “The problem is that we don’t know yet what is adequate or equitable — adequate more the issue, how much money.”
For Doll, the most important thing is doing whatever it takes to keep schools open.
The ruling passed down in October read in part that after June 30, justices “will not allow [themselves] to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”
Alan Rupe, who was legally representing the school districts suing the state at the time, has said he interpreted that statement as a warning from the court that failure to resolve the issue in a way that meets constitutional standards would result in stronger actions, such as, potentially, school shutdowns.
The desired increase has been ballparked around $600 million by lawmakers, though no official request noting that amount has been passed down by the courts. Wheeler said revenues resultant of the tax code reform that passed last year are “higher than estimated,” but legislators won’t know exactly how much money is available to contend with the school finance debacle until April 15, just more than two weeks before the Legislature’s deadline to submit a plan on April 30.
“We have to have it by the first of March to prepare our arguments,” Wheeler said. “That’s going to be very, very difficult to do.”
Another issue facing the deliberations, Wheeler said, is the Senate’s reappointment of former senator Jeff King to represent its interests in the Supreme Court ruling. King has a somewhat unsuccessful record in such cases. More than a decade ago, King defended Kansas in the Montoy v. Kansas school finance case. In that case and the current case, the courts ruled against the State of Kansas.
To make matters worse, Wheeler said, King previously served alongside him on the Judicial Branch’s Blue Ribbon Commission. King chaired the commission’s finance committee before, as majority leader of the Senate, proposing that lawmakers defund the Supreme Court.
“That’s the person we’re hiring to go over there,” Wheeler said. “I’m going to tell you that I don’t think there’s a justice on the Supreme Court that cares for Mr. King… So I think that is problematic.”
The House has not yet hired a legal representative.
The rumored $600 million figure would put lawmakers in a financial bind, especially when other agencies have been cut in accommodation of Gov. Sam Brownback’s failed tax policy that ended last year. Doll noted that virtually every agency in the state has been gutted, leaving little room for fiscal improvisation.
One such improvisation might include targeting the Children’s Initiative Fund, which supports programs and services with a focus on early childhood, health, mental health and child welfare. Brownback proposed monetizing the CIF during his State of the State address last year.
With Brownback slated to deliver the address again on Tuesday night, Wheeler said he expects that he’ll target the CIF once more.
“I think we can count on that being in there again,” Wheeler said. “I don’t think that’s going to pass because we defeated it last time. I don’t see that there’s any way we’re not going to do that again, I’m hoping.”
Katrina Lowry, a program director for Russell Child Development Center, told lawmakers Saturday that her income is essentially sourced from the CIF and draining it would compromise her salary and about 20 others in southwest Kansas.
“We’ve got to find our happy place, our sweet spot,” Doll said. “How much taxes do we need to pay for it to be effective, for our government core functions? ... What we try to do is do too much, but our infrastructure, our education, our health care, things like that, we need to be able to give them enough revenue that they operate efficiently.”
The Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce hosts the annual Legislative Coffee series during each legislative session. The series will continue on Feb. 17, March 17, April 21 and May 19. Each session will begin at 10 a.m. in Classroom B in the lower level of St. Catherine Hospital.
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.