We’ve heard this teeth-gnashing nonsense before, and we’re now hearing it again: If the Kansas Supreme Court orders more funding for K-12 schools beyond what the Legislature has approved, it will trigger a constitutional crisis.
That so-called crisis would erupt because, in the opinion of many conservative state legislators, the high court does not have the authority to arbitrarily overrule the “power of the purse” granted solely to the Legislature.
I’ve heard repeated claims of a bizarre notion: that there is no way a majority of legislators would approve a tax increase to meet the order of the courts, leading to a constitutional crisis.
That is preposterous. The Kansas Supreme Court has the authority to interpret the Kansas Constitution and rule on the definition of a “suitable” education and what that costs. That amount is likely to be announced on a Friday in the near future.
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The Supreme Court ruled in March that K-12 funding in Kansas was inadequate but provided no specific guideline to fix that. The Legislature responded by allocating an additional $488 million over two years. They increased taxes to make that happen.
The high court may give the Legislature a pass for one year to avoid closing schools during the academic year. But at the end of the day, that number is unlikely to clear the Supreme Court’s bar. A three-judge district court panel already concluded that schools needed $450 million more each year, not over two years.
No one knows for certain, but a good guess might be the court will call for increasing funding over several years until the result is something like an additional $400 million annually, over and above what was just passed. That is what the attorneys involved in the lawsuits filed by four school districts pretty much have stated as their goal.
If there is a stand-off, the public outcry would be focused like a laser beam on the legislators who demonstrate what the public would perceive as contempt for the courts and contempt for public education. In an election year, that would invite a massive rebuke by voters frustrated with elected representatives who refuse to follow the law.
If the Legislature wants to play a game of high-stakes poker with the Supreme Court, I’ve got news for them: When it comes to deciding what the Constitution means, the Supreme Court holds a royal flush. The Legislature doesn’t even have a pair of deuces. So all the ranting and raving would mean nothing beyond strictly grandstanding.
Let’s suppose the court gives the state three more years to reach the funding goal, which is similar to what the court has done in the past. There is no backdoor escape. That would mean an annual increase in taxes during those three years. If anyone tries to sell voters on the idea that the state could free up funds by cutting expenses, pay no attention. Kansas is already under-funding highways, retirement funds, higher education, prisons and numerous social services. We can’t cut our way there.
After howling and berating the courts, legislators will eventually get down to business. They will increase taxes and then blame those hikes on a pesky court that is “over-reaching its authority” and causing much pain “without regard to taxpayers.”
That is not a constitutional crisis. There won’t be one because to have a crisis, there must be at least two equivalent forces at loggerheads. In this case, it’s not even close to an even match-up. The Supreme Court reigns supreme, unless the Constitution is amended, which is beyond unlikely.