Things at the statehouse are heating up.
With turnaround day behind us, the delay of a three-week hiatus and the encroaching deadline for a feasible school finance plan that meets somewhat nebulous requirements set forth by the Kansas Supreme Court, Senate leadership is pushing for a low-ball funding solution and an amendment that would give more authority to the Legislature.
But, according to one area lawmaker, State Sen. John Doll (I-Garden City), the tactics adopted by Senate leadership have been the same kind of 11th-hour strong-arm moves that landed the state with former governor Sam Brownback’s 2014 tax bill and the fiscal hole that came with it.
Doll is concerned by Senate leadership’s previous effort to stall passage of a Senate education bill until both the House and Senate pass a resolution to amend the state constitution and limit the Supreme Court’s authority on the constitutionality of K-12 school funding plans.
Doll says any attempt to infringe upon judicial review by the Supreme Court jeopardizes funding for western Kansas, along with every county beyond the pale of the state’s largest urban areas.
The House withstood the stalling effort by refusing to call a vote on the amendment and thereby pushed the Senate to a vote on its education bill.
Citing a source familiar with the conversation, Doll said Sen. President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, brought a handful of GOP leaders into a closed-door conference and threatened their chairmanships if they didn’t support the now passed Senate bill that would phase in $275 million in increased funding to state education over the next five years.
Wagle was unavailable for comment as of press time.
The Senate’s plan represents a funding increase almost half of what was passed in the House’s $525 million plan to be phased in over the same period.
Doll says there is speculation, or “hall talk,” that a GOP cadre is pushing for a finance plan that they know would be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court to frustrate lawmakers and galvanize support for the constitutional amendment.
“It was an unbelievable power play to get that education bill passed,” Doll said. “I see zero chance of it being constitutional.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to meet Saturday to continue eking out passage of a joint education bill, following a request by Gov. Jeff Colyer and state Attorney General Derek Schmidt to do so before first adjournment.
“We can’t leave here without an education bill of some sort,” Doll said. “We’re up against the 11th hour, so that’s when bad decisions are made.”
The amendment, which is being pushed by a coalition of business and ag industry leaders, is House Concurrent Resolution 5209.
The resolution would put a question on the statewide ballot allowing voters to decide if matters of school funding should lie strictly in the domain of the Legislature, while limiting the Supreme Court to decisions on whether money was distributed equitably among districts.
Doll said preserving the court’s jurisdiction over equitable funding softens the blow, but the amendment is still “fundamentally wrong.”
“We’ve based our system on the federal system, and the federal system is based on checks and balances and separations of powers,” he said. “You can’t just go grab somebody’s else’s powers.”
Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, missed the vote on the amendment resolution that passed out of the House Judiciary Committee 12-10 because of a doctor’s appointment scheduled months in advance. He added that, given the results of the vote, his presence ultimately would not have made a difference.
Wheeler, the former Finney County attorney, said he wouldn’t have voted for the resolution because it’s still too premature to call for an amendment limiting the jurisdiction of the court.
He said it’s improper to make such a move while lawmakers are still negotiating a school finance bill under the Supreme Court's order with the fast approaching deadline.
“Those two things are just totally inconsistent,” he said of the amendment and the finance bill. “They are harming our abilities to move forward.”
Wheeler said he thinks the bill passed by the House will be considered constitutionally adequate, but not the bill passed by the Senate.
However, Wheeler said, if a joint bill passes that reflects the bill passed by the House and the Supreme Court still finds it unconstitutional, “we would probably then have to take affirmative action to limit the jurisdiction, but not now.”
The Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding, led by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Livestock Association and Kansas Contractors Association, is pushing for the amendment.
The coalition is intent on investing political and financial resources to resolve the state’s ongoing school funding battle as it pertains to court influence and prevent other state budgets, such as transportation, from being jeopardized by disproportionate funding for education. K-12 education funding already accounts for more than half of the state's budget.
H.J. Swender Jr. represents another member of the coalition, Garden City-based oil and gas company American Warrior. He was not available for comment for this story, but in a previous story written by the Topeka Capital-Journal, Swender called for taking politics out of the battle and letting the people of Kansas decide how to resolve the issue. He said a constitutional amendment “remains the best way to make sure our schools and other essential services are not neglected.”
For Doll, the implications of the amendment and purported coercion by GOP Senate leadership reinforce his decision to leave the Republican Party and become an independent in his gubernatorial run with Greg Orman.
“The politics of this is just terrible,” Doll, a former teacher, said. He added that students and schools are being used as “pawns” in a larger political game.
However, Doll said, he supports the finance bill passed by the House, calling it “solid” and representative of what many senators want.
“On our Senate side, we’re trying to play the politics so we get this constitutional amendment,” he said.
He argued that members of the GOP contending that the House bill supported by Gov. Colyer will raise taxes are lying.
“That’s a lie,” Doll said. “That’s a flat out lie.”
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.