Archive for Thursday, March 25, 2004

Judge wants action on schools

Warning comes as Legislature debates plans

March 25, 2004


— As lawmakers bobbed and weaved on education funding Wednesday, the judge who declared Kansas' school-finance plan unconstitutional delivered a legal roundhouse, telling state officials he wanted a remedy soon.

Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock told attorneys in the case that moving forward with a remedy would provide children "an equitable and adequate education in a more expeditious manner."

In December, Bullock declared the $2.6 billion school-finance system unconstitutional, finding it underfunded education and distributed funds in a way that discriminated against minority students.

He gave the Legislature until July 1 to fix the system, but lawmakers have appealed his decision to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Despite the pending appeal, Bullock said he had latitude to consider remedies and make decisions in the case.

"If we delay the remedy proceedings until the Supreme Court enters a decision, then it could be months, if not years, before the Supreme Court has an opportunity to review this court's final decision on remedy," he wrote in a letter to the attorneys.

Bullock rejected a halt to his preliminary court order, saying, "In this court's view, granting a stay now will simply further delay the implementation of any remedy, thereby forever consigning thousands more Kansas minority and other vulnerable children to a lesser existence."

He ordered attorneys for the state to submit legal briefs to him by April 1 on the matter.

House action on education

Nicole Corcoran, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, said Bullock's letter showed the state needed to work now on school finance instead of waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule.

"He is calling for action," she said. "The Legislature is not going to get a stay."

Meanwhile, legislators battled throughout the day over school finance.

First, the House rejected a school-finance plan that would have provided a $28 million increase in state funding and allowed local school districts to raise more funds by removing the exemption of the 20-mill state tax levy for schools on the first $20,000 of appraised home value.

The plan by the GOP leadership had advanced Tuesday on a 63-62 vote. But on Wednesday, the final vote was uncertain and House leaders left the roll open for nearly an hour before it became apparent the measure would fail. Then, numerous Republicans jumped off the bill as it sank with 90 votes against it and 35 votes for it. All 45 Democrats opposed the proposal.

Tax proposal

The school-finance debate continues in the Kansas Legislature. The House Wednesday tentatively approved a $28 million funding increase after turning back a $92 million increase and a $155 million increase.A Senate committee endorsed two plans: a $65 million increase and a one-year $137 million increase.

Later in the day, state Rep. Bill Kassebaum, R-Burdick, proposed a $155 million increase in school funding that would be paid with a two-tenths of a cent increase in the state sales tax and a 4.5 percent increase in state income tax.

State Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, supported the proposal, saying that if the Legislature failed to produce a funding package for schools it was jeopardizing the court case with Bullock. "Do we want a judge to be put in charge of schools?" he said.

But state Rep. Frank Miller, R-Independence, said the tax increases would hurt the state's economy. "Whatever economic recovery we got going, we are going to kill," he said.

Kassebaum, however, responded, "We're not so broke that we can't afford to pay attention to our problems."

The proposal was defeated 77-48, but supporters said they would bring up a similar measure today as an amendment to another bill.

Among local legislators, Reps. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, Rob Boyer, R-Olathe, Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, and Davis supported the Kassebaum measure. Reps. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin, and Lee Tafanelli, R-Ozawkie, voted against it.

After Kassebaum's effort failed, House Majority Leader Clay Aurand, R-Courtland, brought up again the House leadership plan but removed the option for property tax increases in most local school districts.

The measure still includes a provision allowing 16 districts with the highest housing costs to increase local school property taxes to cover school costs. Lawrence is included on that list. The measure was advanced 69-55, and a final vote was expected today.

Flurry of activity

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee advanced two finance plans, including a smaller version of Sebelius' $304 million tax increase for schools.

The smaller version would increase school funding by $137 million through increases in state sales and income taxes.

The other plan, proposed by a group of Senate Republicans, would boost school spending by $65 million through increase in liquor taxes and other tax policy adjustments.

The flurry of activity on school finance was typified by the morning vote on the House GOP plan when Sebelius began telephoning lawmakers at their desks, urging them to vote against the plan. Meanwhile, House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, was calling lawmakers, urging them to support the proposal.

State Rep. Ted Powers, R-Mulvane, said he was surprised when Sebelius called him at his desk.

Powers was one of several lawmakers who voted for the plan Tuesday, when it advanced.

But on Wednesday, Powers vacillated.

Finally, with Sebelius' words ringing in his ears and messages from school administrators in his district telling him no, Powers pulled the plug and voted "No." That started the bill's downward slide.

"The problem that really presents itself," Powers said later, " is now what?"

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