Archive for Saturday, April 30, 2005

Legislature seeks permission to argue at school finance hearing

April 30, 2005


— Legislators took the extraordinary step Friday of asking the Kansas Supreme Court for permission to answer questions and defend their school finance package.

The request, filed Friday morning, came less than two weeks before the Supreme Court will hear from attorneys for the state, the State Board of Education and plaintiff school districts about the school funding package.

The Kansas Supreme Court in January ordered the Legislature to change the state's $2.7 billion school funding plan, saying it failed to meet a constitutional duty to provide for the continuous improvement of education.

Even so, the Legislature is not a defendant in the case, only the state and the State Board of Education.

"This is not an ordinary case," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence. "I'm not sure the full import has been impressed upon the court in oral arguments."

The Legislature's response to the court's January order was to increase school funding by $142 million and grant authority to local school districts to increase property taxes.

Attorney General Phill Kline, whose office represents the state, said it's appropriate for legislators to have their own representation.

"We've not represented the Legislature," Kline said during a news conference. "We've represented the people of Kansas."

Asked whether the legislators will make the same legal arguments that the attorneys hired by Kline have, the attorney general said, "It's always nice to have more than one voice to say what you're saying."

The Supreme Court's January decision came in a lawsuit filed in 1999 by attorneys representing parents and administrators in the Dodge City and Salina school districts.

Spokesman Ron Keefover said the courts have no specific guidelines in deciding whether to grant Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, and Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, speaking time. The court has set aside one hour each for the plaintiffs and defendants.

It's unclear how quickly the justices will act on the request, Keefover said.

The Legislative Coordinating Council, the House and Senate top seven leaders, voted 5-2 Friday morning to make the request of the court. Vratil and O'Neal, both attorneys, are chairmen of their chamber's judiciary committees, vice chairmen of education panels and were chief architects of the final package, adopted March 30.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg, voted against the request, saying the views expressed by legislators before the justices would not represent those who voted against the bill, which passed 23-12 in the Senate and 76-48 in the House.

House Speaker Doug Mays said O'Neal and Vratil -- who also works for the firm representing the state -- will explain legislative intent behind the funding law,including how much was allocated to various education programs and the decision to give local districts additional authority to raise property taxes. No individual opinion on the law will be advocated, he added.

"That's all there is to defend," said Mays, R-Topeka. "We're not there to defend what didn't happen."

However, Wichita attorney Alan Rupe, who represents the school districts, filed a response Friday afternoon, saying legislators would have an opportunity to explain the logic behind their actions if the court orders further information after the May 11 hearing.

"This court should prohibit Messrs. O'Neal and Vratil from offering inappropriate, self-serving testimony based on allegations of fact not included in the record on appeal," Rupe wrote.

McKinney noted that state law allows for appointment of a legislative attorney, a position that has been vacant for a number of years.

"Deviating from that I don't believe is warranted. I don't believe it's proper and I resent it," McKinney said.

Democrats said they are considering their options, including filing a request with the court for permission to present the views of opponents of the package.

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