AP: Legislators mull ballot measure on schools
TOPEKA (AP) — Conservative Republicans who control the Kansas Legislature want to revise the state constitution to rein in the courts following a ruling that the state must boost its spending on public schools, several GOP leaders confirmed Monday.
The leaders told The Associated Press that interest among Republican legislators in a constitutional amendment has been high since the ruling Friday by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court. The leaders aren't sure yet what form the proposal will take but said it would clarify that only the Legislature — and not the courts — can determine school funding levels.
"There's been a whole lot of discussion about what the response should be," said new Senate Vice President Jeff King, a conservative Independence Republican who is also Judiciary Committee chairman. "Submitting that question to the people of Kansas to decide seems like a pretty good idea to me."
A constitutional change must be adopted by a two-thirds majorities in both chambers — which Republicans have — and be approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election. Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a conservative Hutchinson Republican, said the goal is to put a measure to a vote as quickly as possible, perhaps even in a special election.
The three-judge panel declared that the state must boost aid to public schools by at least $440 million a year to meet its obligations under the state constitution to provide a suitable education to every child. And, in a move particularly irritating to conservatives, the judges criticized legislators for claiming the state couldn't afford to spend more on schools while enacting massive income tax cuts last year to stimulate the economy.
The attorney general's office already has promised to appeal, but it's not clear how quickly the Kansas Supreme Court could issue a final ruling. GOP leaders continued to denounce the decision Monday and said they'll pursue initiatives to make schools more accountable and give parents more choice in schooling.
"Money is not the only part of the equation," House Speaker Ray Merrick, a conservative Stilwell Republican, said during a Statehouse news conference.
Democrats, moderate Republicans and education groups are likely to resist any proposed constitutional change, arguing that the Legislature has a duty to comply with the court order.
"There's a purpose for the three branches of the government, and I would hate to see a particular Legislature that we have in office right now usurp that balance," Karen Godfrey, president of the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said during an interview. "It's clear that we have a constitutional mandate to fund our schools suitably."
The education article of the state constitution commands legislators to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state." The Supreme Court has said in rulings in 2005 and 2006 that lawmakers must finance an adequate education for every child, keep up with rising educational costs and ensure that schools continually improve.
But House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a conservative Louisburg Republican, said lawmakers are frustrated because they believe the courts have exceeded their constitutional authority in weighing in on school funding. He said GOP lawmakers see any constitutional changes as merely clarifying the issue.
"We have the purse strings," he said in an interview. "Most of us believe that it's already black and white."
Conservative lawmakers pushed for constitutional changes after the earlier Supreme Court rulings, but such measures were blocked by Democrats and GOP moderates. The Senate had been controlled by GOP moderates, who often worked with centrist and liberal Democrats, but conservatives have a strong majority after last year's elections.