Kansas taxpayers may be hit with up to a $3.7 billion tax increase to fund K-12 education over the next four years, and that’s just one reason to amend the state constitution and prevent courts from setting school funding levels.
That calculation is produced by the Kansas Legislative Research Department. It is based on having a legal and structurally-balanced budget without transfers from the highway fund, and making all scheduled payments to the KPERS pension program through fiscal year 2023. The only spending increases included are those related to approved school funding, the Kansas Department of Education’s calculation of complying with the latest Supreme Court ruling, and the Kansas Legislative Research Department estimate for Medicaid coverage at existing caseload levels.
About $624 million of the tax increase is already in place. Federal tax reform eliminates personal exemptions, caps itemized deductions for some people, and imposes higher taxes on many businesses. The Kansas Senate voted to prevent this backdoor state income tax hike, but too many House members wanted more money to spend.
Paying for approved school funding without gimmicks (transfers from other funds, delaying KPERS payments, ignoring the ending balance law and more) will cost another $2.1 billion. If elected officials decide to meet the Department of Education’s estimate of the latest court demand, another $940 million tax hike will be needed. Those claiming school funding can be massively increased without raising taxes either don’t want you to know the implications for highways, social services and higher education, or they’re afraid to tell the truth about tax increases. Because, you know, getting elected is what really matters.
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Even if the Legislature adds more money and satisfies the court on adequacy, it’s just a matter of when the next lawsuit is filed. The Legislature’s cost study, with its $2 billion recommendation, is a ticking time bomb, and school attorneys won’t hesitate to exploit it for the benefit of the adults in the system. Just spending more money hasn’t improved achievement in the past and it won’t help students going forward. Every instance cited by courts where the education lobby and elected officials purport to correlate higher spending with better outcomes is easily refuted with multiple examples showing exactly the opposite.
Another reason to amend the constitution is to preserve the separation of powers in our constitutional republic. The Kansas Supreme Court itself has made two critical findings that explain why courts cannot set funding levels. Its 1994 ruling in USD 229 v. State of Kansas declared that “suitable provision for finance” in the Kansas Constitution does not mandate a certain level of funding, but instead refers to a system of finance that may not include tuition, as it stipulates. “Adequate” isn’t even part of the constitutional language on education. That adjective was created by Kansas courts.
And in 2015, the state Supreme Court found the Legislature’s attempt to allow local judges to elect their own chief judge unconstitutional. The court said the Legislature violated the court’s constitutional authority and quite emphatically said it is the duty of the judicial, legislative and executive branches “to abstain from, and to oppose, encroachments” on their authority.
Since the Kansas constitution vests authority to spend money solely with the Legislature, and the 1994 court said the constitutional meaning of “suitable” doesn’t reference a level of funding, those proposing a constitutional amendment believe they are honoring the system of checks and balances, as well as upholding the rule of law and constitutional intent.
Dave Trabert is president of Kansas Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on limited government.