Facing fiscal dilemma
Ruling on school funding may lead to tough decisions on state budget.
BY SCOTT AUST
Much of Saturday's town hall meeting at Garden City Community College with local representatives John Doll and Russ Jennings centered around Friday's court decision that called the state's current per-pupil education funding too low and unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court issued the ruling, which likely will be appealed to the state supreme court.
Jennings said the court decision means roughly $440 million more needs to be spent on education to attain a level consistent with the state constitution. Add on top of that the $260 million projected budget shortfall, Jennings said, and it isn't difficult to see the challenge that will be facing the Legislature this session and even in the next fiscal year.
"Gov. Brownback has reigned over the greatest tax decrease in our state's history. In the next 18 months, he may also have the distinction of reigning over the most significant increase in taxes in our state's history, all in one term," Jennings said. "There's no money left in the state general fund to be cut out, unless you want to close prisons, unless you want to end the few social services that remain. It's just not an option. This is going to be among the most difficult times our state has experienced in terms of crafting public policy on this issue."
Doll agreed that making cuts can only go so far, and he expects the cost to be passed on to property tax payers unless the governor has a change of mind about his income tax cuts.
"We're going to have to fight real hard. It's going to be a tough battle," he said. "You have to give them tools to succeed. If you're cutting so much, you're making that particular agency ineffective."
Jennings expects the decision will go to the state supreme court, which historically doesn't act quickly. But when it does, he expects the decision likely will back the Shawnee court, which will mean the state will have to come up with the money for education.
Jennings said Brownback's response to the court decision was telling when he said the court handed taxpayers a significant increase in property taxes. To him, that means the governor is looking at property taxes to get the money.
In response to a question asking why legislators don't start addressing the funding issue now instead of waiting for the supreme court to issue a ruling, Jennings said he doesn't believe a majority of legislators have the will to roll back the tax plan that was passed last session, though there may be some minor "tweaking" proposed.
"We have some serious choices to make. Some of those won't be pleasant or popular. But I can tell you from my perspective, it's going to take courage from a lot of people to do the right thing, notwithstanding the political implications," he said.
Instead, Jennings predicts many lawmakers' reactions will be to call for revamping the judicial system to get rid of an independent judiciary that is influenced by the law, not politics.
Another question concerned the likelihood of keeping Amtrak's Southwest Chief rolling through Garden City and southwest Kansas.
Doll said that before Friday's court decision, he thought chances were pretty good, but now he's concerned that state budget issues may pose a problem. Right now, he said, it's probably too early to tell whether Amtrak will stay, but as a member of the transportation committee, he said, he intends to fight for it.
Both Doll and Jennings said it will be important for western Kansas lawmakers to build coalitions and partnerships with representatives in eastern Kansas, and they also urged the public to get more involved in issues to let representatives know the concerns of the average person.