What will happen, now that a District Court in Kansas just ruled that schools in the state are underfunded to the tune of $500 million a year and that the Legislature has been negligent in its funding?
By STEVE ROSE
Special to The Star
Here is one likely scenario:
It is a foregone conclusion that this ruling will be appealed and end up in the Kansas Supreme Court. And it is fairly predictable how the nine justices will rule, either in the upcoming legislative session or in the summer.
All we have to do is rewind to 2005, when the Kansas Supreme Court voted unanimously to force the Legislature to increase funding by hundreds of millions of dollars to fund schools adequately.
Legislators hollered and screamed, but they raised taxes and complied only after considering a constitutional amendment to limit the Supreme Courts authority in such instances. More about that later.
To comply, the Legislature phased in the increased funding over several years. By the peak year of 2008, per-pupil funding was $4,400 a year. But then lawmakers did an about-face. The Legislature started cutting base aid to students. By 2011, that had shrunk to $3,780.
So, we are very likely to see a roundtrip back to the Supreme Court, which will say, look, we told you what we wanted, and you have ignored the court. Now, fix it.
But things have changed in the Legislature, in a big way.
Back in 2005, a strong majority, but not the necessary two-thirds, supported the amendment to trump the courts.
It said, The executive and judicial branches shall have no authority to direct the legislative branch to make any appropriation of money, or to redirect the expenditure of funds appropriated by law.
Todays ultra-conservative Legislature would be much more likely to be able to muster a two-thirds vote to pass such an amendment, which would need the approval of the people.
That would be the first of two constitutional amendments likely to come out of the Legislature to shut down any increases in school spending.
The second would be a change in the way Supreme Court justices are selected in Kansas, with the ultimate goal of a far more conservative, less intrusive court. This might serve as a hedge, in case the first amendment failed. It also would tend to keep the high court out of any controversial business conducted in the Legislature.
Today, whenever an opening on the Supreme Court appears, three potential justices are nominated by a panel of five lawyers and four non-lawyers. The governor then picks from the three.
Under a new amendment being talked about, the governor would have the sole authority to select a Supreme Court justices, with the approval of the state Senate.
If either or both amendments pass the Legislature with a two-thirds vote in each chamber, it goes to a referendum. If approved in the upcoming session, the amendments would normally go on the ballot in November 2014.
However, there is a provision in the law that allows the Legislature to call a special election to consider such matters, and that is precisely what the Legislature is likely to do, probably in April. In that way, they could head off any court-ordered increase in school funding.
Now enters the triumvirate to get the amendments passed.
It would include the governor, his supporters in the Legislature, and Koch Industries, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate in Wichita which is ultra-conservative and very politically active.
Koch would certainly pour millions of dollars into a campaign to pass the amendments. With that overwhelming campaign funding, combined with the heavy push of political leaders, the amendments almost certainly would pass.
Schools would resume their role as the target of budget cuts by legislators who think they are inefficient or who care little for public education.
To reach Steve Rose, send email to email@example.com.