TOPEKA — Republican leadership in the Kansas Senate sought to pressure lawmakers Tuesday into passing a constitutional amendment limiting authority of the Kansas Supreme Court before taking up a school-funding bill.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the priority ought to be securing two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate for an education amendment to the Kansas Constitution. An amendment on the November general election ballot would potentially clarify the legislative branch controls K-12 appropriations, while the judicial branch's function is evaluation of the fairness of those allocations.
"Senate will not work school finance bill until (a) constitutional amendment passes House and Senate," said Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Republican. She said the directive came from Senate GOP leadership.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the decision meant Kansas school children were being held "hostage" by the leadership's demand. He doubted the action would result in passage of a constitutional amendment by the Legislature.
“Senators Wagle and Denning’s temper tantrum over a constitutional amendment is one of the most irrational actions taken by any legislative leadership I’ve ever seen," Hensley said. “Wagle and Denning are acting like school-yard bullies."
After adoption of a constitutional resolution, GOP Senate leaders would then allow the Senate to consider a funding bill intended to solve constitutional flaws in the school finance system identified by the Supreme Court. The justices set an April 30 deadline for approval of a funding plan by the Legislature and Gov. Jeff Colyer.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he endorsed the leadership's maneuver, because it could produce enough Senate votes to pass the amendment and swing support to a funding bill. He said, "Drastic strategies are necessary."
On Tuesday, the House passed a bill adding more than $500 million to state aid to schools over a five-year period. An attempt to make new funding contingent on passage of a constitutional amendment was abandoned.
At a House committee tasked with ironing out the details of the amendment, Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, acknowledged the resolution would give the Legislature authority to eliminate all school funding. In such a theoretical scenario, he said, voters could respond by letting their views be known in subsequent legislative elections.
Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, defended the effort to let people weigh in on a constitutional amendment. If the resolution clears the Legislature, a majority vote by the public in November would decide the issue.
Aurand asked lawmakers to consider the balance between school funding and other basic services the state provides.
"When do we reach the level of diminishing returns that other needs are more important?" Aurand said. "And the question is where is the best place to work that out."
Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, said the Legislature "can't take care of everybody" because the 2012 tax cuts decimated the state.
"The court's telling us to follow the constitution," she said.