Any day now, the Kansas Supreme Court could hand the Kansas Legislature, just recovering from its harrowing 2017 session, a $600 million headache. And that’s just the two-year down payment on support of public education.
The court’s ruling in Gannon vs. Kansas could carry a lighter financial kick, but $600 million is the two-year increase in school spending that the plaintiff school districts contend would meet the Kansas Constitution’s requirement of “suitable” funding. The state’s lawyers contend that enough was done in the 2017 legislative session and that raising a penny more, much less $600 million, would be an unfair burden on everyone.
So how big a burden is $600 million? Clearly a staggering sum for most people or businesses, it’s half the amount ($1.2 billion) that the 2017 Legislature increased taxes when it overrode Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto and restored his 2014 tax cuts that had blown a huge hole in the state’s finances, credit rating and national reputation.
If — and it’s a major if — the court rules that the schools must get the entire amount, or it settles on $300 million or $150 million, or $1, the decision will reignite a series of prototypical Kansas debates about the balance of legislative versus judicial authority, the alleged “waste and inefficiency” in “administration-heavy” school systems, the place and power of teachers’ unions, the assertion that “throwing money at schools” won’t help, and even the value and necessity of public education itself.
We’ve been there too many times in almost five decades that litigation on school funding has been going on, and it’s time to move beyond those tired, unresolvable, delaying disputes.
But moving beyond argument to resolution is difficult for everyone, including the justices and legislators.
The justices recognize that levying taxes is the exclusive province of the legislative branch and are reluctant to usurp that authority, yet they have some obligation, having declared the existing amount unconstitutionally insufficient (which is within their duty), to suggest what amount might meet their test.
Legislators are slow to raise taxes because people hate it when that happens, but the court says they must produce the money. But from where?
Income taxes? Just had a substantial increase, though most of it was merely rolling back the foolish Brownback cuts.
Sales tax? It’s already among the nation’s highest, and raising sales taxes substantially begins to backfire: people cut spending, negatively affecting income taxes and the overall economy.
The 20 mill statewide property tax for schools? Raising $600 million would require almost doubling it, to 36 mills.
The sin taxes (alcohol, tobacco), gasoline, use taxes and licenses? Not nearly enough there no matter how much you multiply.
Deciding how to raise taxes is always a political calculation because it designates winners and losers: Which lobbyists wield the most clout and which campaign contributors prevail?
It’s time for everyone to recognize the necessity and duty to commit the money, however the courts and legislature arrive at an amount. That number should be thought about in the context of annual tax income from all sources, which presently is $7.531 billion. Thus, even $600 million would be about 8 percent; half of that — $300 million — would be 4 percent.
That’s not catastrophic, and the political calculation would be greatly simplified if we each accept that it’s an equally shared obligation. Develop a formula to raise each tax by an amount proportionate to its contribution and complete the job.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.