This must be the year that Kansas Supreme Court justices are looking over their shoulders as they visit the grocery store or idle in the drive-up lane to pick up coffee on their way to work.
The court decided last week that the Kansas Legislature has come up with an equitable way to disperse state aid to public elementary and secondary schools. All school districts from border to border are being treated equally. But the court also decided that the Kansas Legislature’s five-year plan for boosting state aid to K-12 schools by about $525 million falls short of the amount needed so that every child has access to the best possible education—which is what Kansans want for their children and grandchildren.
Practically, that decision on the longtime school finance case said that lawmakers have done a good job with the most technically complicated issue of that equity in financing of the state’s 286 public school districts. The technically hard part is done. That’s good.
But...while equity is actually the toughest issue, it’s the money...and where the Legislature gets that money…that has exploded among conservative lawmakers who this year and in the next two years are going to run for reelection and don’t want to raise anyone’s taxes.
It all comes down to taxes, this school finance scrap, and conservatives are already campaigning on proposals to prevent the Kansas Supreme Court from deciding whether the funding for schools is adequate.
The conservative solutions all are based on putting the court on a leash held by whomever has a majority in the Legislature. Good idea? Probably not long-term, but for the upcoming few years, as long as money is distributed equitably, it would allow the Legislature to decide how much money to spend — and whether it will or won’t either raise taxes or divert state money from anything else to education.
Chances are slim, very slim, that the Legislature can gather the 27 Senate votes and 84 House votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment resolution to put the issue on a statewide ballot.
But the talk is powerful. The “courts taking over state government,” or the court “overruling the decisions of lawmakers elected by the voters of Kansas,” or maybe simply: “the court is raising your taxes” (or forcing legislators to raise your taxes).
What’s better than blaming the court for what could be a state spending — and maybe taxing — increase so that conservative legislators can assert they raised taxes under court order and can’t be blamed for it next election?
That increase in spending that the court demands be made by next year’s Legislature? The court doesn’t say how much new money the state needs to spend to meet statewide adequacy, but the computations to meet the court’s decision appear to be somewhere between $80 million and $120 million more a year. That’ atop the $525 million approved last session, and while it is quite a bit of money, the state can probably come up with it. Won’t be pretty, but the money is, or can be, there.
So, what’s it look like for those Kansas Supreme Court justices? They are going to come under continued fire from lawmakers who want to strip the court’s power to determine what the word “adequate” is as it relates to public education. Chances of voters getting to decide that issue are slim, but it makes a great campaign slogan for conservatives.
Maybe the best deal for those justices is that none of them stand for retention election this year.
Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report. Visit his website at www.hawvernews.com