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Archive for Sunday, December 21, 2003

A big gamble

Taking no action to address a judge’s order on school finance would be a risky proposition for Kansas lawmakers.

December 21, 2003

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"How could we get a worse deal?" Kansas House Speaker Doug Mays reportedly told an Associated Press reporter in reference to Judge Terry Bullock's decision concerning the state's system of distributing funds to public K-12 schools.

"It's not possible to do worse than we did out of Bullock's decision," Mays continued, "It's absolutely the worst-case scenario."

Don't be so sure. In the response Bullock issued Friday to a request to allow an earlier appeal of his decision to the Kansas Supreme Court, the Shawnee County district judge showed little patience with those who want to circumvent his opinion that the Kansas school finance system is unconstitutional.

"JUST GO FIX IT!" Bullock wrote in a 10-page order rejecting the request from an attorney for the State Board of Education.

That doesn't fit with the plan of Mays and many other legislative leaders who are advocating doing nothing about school finance until after the July 1 deadline Bullock set for the governor and legislators to fix inequities in the system. Lawmakers are hoping that an appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court will lessen the impact of Bullock's ruling, which the judge has said could cost the state as much as $1 billion a year. Friday's ruling means that action now can't take place until July 1 when the order takes effect.

So what happens between now and then? Legislative leaders are portraying Bullock's order to reform the system as an impossible demand not even worth considering in its current form. Because of that, they apparently plan to stick their heads in the sand and make no attempt to work toward addressing the judge's concerns.

The fact that members of both the House and Senate will face election next November is no small piece of this puzzle. Any movement to meet the judge's order almost certainly would require a tax increase, which most legislators are loathe to support in an election year. Delaying the bad news until July 1 won't help election campaigns, but if the decision then is appealed to the Supreme Court it might delay any action by Bullock -- or the Legislature -- until after the November vote.

How Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will deal with school finance in her State of the State address on Jan. 12 remains to be seen. She has announced plans to submit a school finance plan to legislators but has revealed no details. Her plan also would be highly likely to include a tax increase, perhaps in the state sales tax.

The politics of this situation are difficult. The Republican-controlled Legislature wouldn't be inclined to accept the plan of the Democratic governor, but if they do nothing, they leave the state's public schools in an uncertain position. Most of the alternatives aren't very palatable. The judge could impose his own system on the state or order that funding he considers to be inequitable be withheld. A special session of the Legislature might be needed -- at taxpayer expense. Lawmakers might be able to put off action on the matter until January 2005, but there certainly is no guarantee of that.

Like a festering medical condition, allowing the school finance situation to go untreated may only complicate the eventual cure. It's a cinch that doing nothing this session won't make the situation any better, and Judge Bullock's determined stand certainly raises the possibility that legislators might be surprised at how bad it could get.

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