Lawmakers told to double school spending

Supreme Court gives July 1 deadline; Legislature must hold special session

? In a landmark ruling, a unanimous Kansas Supreme Court on Friday ordered state lawmakers to increase school funding by $285 million by July 1, a decision that will force a special legislative session and a possible tax increase.

The court expressed urgency in getting the Legislature to act, saying ” … we cannot continue to ask current Kansas students to ‘be patient.’ The time for education is now.”

The decision rocked Kansas politics and was a blow to Republicans who control the Legislature with large majorities and had put together the school finance plan that the court dissected.

“Today, the Legislature’s inability to fulfill its obligation to Kansas students has finally come home to roost,” said Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said he was shocked by the ruling, and that it could result in tax increases, budget cuts, expanded gambling, or any combination.

“It puts us in uncharted waters,” Morris said. “I don’t believe the Legislature has ever been put in this position before.”

He called on Sebelius to produce a funding plan because she is the state’s chief executive.

Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, who defended the Republican school finance plan, had scheduled a news conference and then canceled it after the ruling came out. His office said it needed more time to analyze the decision.

Special session

Sebelius said she would contact legislative leaders this weekend and decide what to do next. “Clearly a special session is required,” she said.

State's attorney Kenneth Weltz, left, and attorney Dan Biles, representing the State Board of Education, right, visit earlier this year before beginning oral arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court justices. During the January hearing, the justices ruled that state legislators had failed to fulfill their constitutional duty to fund Kansas schools and ordered changes in the school finance formula. On Friday the court again ordered the Legislature to spend more on schools.

It would be the first one in Kansas since 1989, and, given the court’s decision, it would probably be one of the most contentious political fights in recent memory.

In 1999, a group of midsized and property-poor schools sued the state, saying that the $2.7 billion school funding system was inadequate and unfairly distributed.

In January, the state Supreme Court agreed and told the Legislature to fix the finance system during the recently completed legislative session.

Republicans passed a $142 million increase for public schools and allowed local school districts to increase property taxes to supplement funding. Critics said the increase was far below what a consultants’ study recommended, and that the local tax options would further widen the gap between rich and poor districts.

On Friday, the court agreed.

A down payment

The unanimous decision doubled the amount of the spending increase that had been approved earlier by Republican legislative leaders for schools.

The court also struck down parts of the plan that would have allowed local tax increases for schools.

And the court said the $285 million increase was a down payment, noting the 2001 consultants’ study that concluded the state needed to increase school spending by $853 million.

The court said if lawmakers failed next year to increase school funding based on actual and necessary costs, it will order that the remaining two-thirds of the study amount, or $568 million, be appropriated.

Such increases would probably require a statewide tax increase.

Nowhere to run

Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the plaintiff school districts, hailed the ruling.

“This opinion is a guided missile for the Legislature to hit the target,” Rupe said.

He said the decision reminded him of a song by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.

“This is a pretty dang clear message on what needs to be done. The Legislature has nowhere to run and no place to hide.”

Dan Biles, an attorney representing the State Board of Education, said the decision was clear and showed the court didn’t want Kansas to get bogged down for years in “compliance issues.”

“They have to come up with the money,” Biles said of the Legislature.

John Martellaro, president of Kansas Families United for Public Education, praised the decision. “This ruling is a victory for every child, family and community in Kansas,” he said.

Legislators surprised

Lawrence legislators, most of whom opposed the Republican plan, still were surprised by the court’s decision.

“My, my,” Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said. “We have our work cut out for us. We are going to have to get very creative.”

Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said the decision raised the possibility of tax increases and expanded gambling, if not in the special session, then in 2006.

But Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, who had voted for the new school finance bill, said he was disappointed.

“I had hoped that what we passed, while it wasn’t perfect, would have been judged to be a good first step,” Pine said.

He said increased taxes, expanded gambling or both may be on the horizon, and that he wasn’t shutting the door to those options.

“I have always stated we need to do what is appropriate for education and other responsibilities,” he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, whose district includes a portion of Douglas County, said he hoped Sebelius would call in leading legislators on the education, budget and tax committees for meetings to hammer out a compromise plan, and then call the Legislature into session.

Agriculture, court issues among reasons

Past special sessions of the Kansas Legislature:

¢ 1874: seven days, called by Gov. Thomas Osborn, a Republican, to deal with a grasshopper plague destroying crops.

¢ 1884: five days, called by Gov. George Glick, a Democrat, to deal with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.

¢ 1886: 33 days, called by Gov. John Martin, a Republican, to resolve redistricting and deal with appropriations issues.

¢ 1898-99: 16 days, called by Gov. John Leedy, a Populist, to impose new regulations on railroad charges.

¢ 1903: three days, called by Gov. Willis Bailey, a Republican, to enact emergency flood relief legislation.

¢ 1908: 20 days, called by Gov. Edward Hoch, a Republican, to deal with regulation of railroad rates, create a primary election and respond to a financial panic with banking legislation.

¢ 1919: four days, called by Gov. Henry Allen, a Republican, to have the Legislature ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, providing voting rights for women.

¢ 1920: 23 days, called by Allen to deal with social unrest caused by a coal miner’s strike and to pay Kansas National Guard expenses.

¢ 1923: nine days, called by Gov. Jonathan Davis, a Democrat, after learning $25 million in bonds wouldn’t cover voter-approved payments to World War I veterans.

¢ 1928: three days, called by Gov. Ben Paulen, a Republican, to draft an amendment to the Kansas Constitution to allow the state to build and maintain highways, so it wouldn’t lose federal funds.

¢ 1930: 14 days, called by Gov. Clyde Reed, a Republican, to draft a constitutional amendment on tax policy and respond to a Kansas Supreme Court decision on tax issues.

¢ 1933: 27 days, called by Gov. Alf Landon, a Republican, to investigate the forging of municipal bonds (“The Great Finney Bond Scandal,” after its central figure), and to respond to federal banking and work relief laws.

¢ 1936: seven days, called by Landon, to draft a constitutional amendment to allow the state to participate in the federal Social Security program.

¢ 1938: 20 days, called by Gov. Walter Huxman, a Democrat, to make further changes to welfare laws and increase state funding.

¢ 1958: 17 days, called by Gov. George Docking, a Democrat, to respond to a budget crisis brought on by the Kansas Supreme Court’s striking down a mineral severance tax.

¢ 1964: six days, called by Gov. John Anderson, a Republican, to deal with legislative redistricting in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic one-person, one-vote ruling.

¢ 1966: 12 days, called by Gov. Bill Avery, a Republican, to deal with legislative redistricting again, in the wake of another U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Kansas law.

¢ 1987: six days, called by Gov. Mike Hayden, a Republican, in an unsuccessful attempt to enact a comprehensive highway program.

¢ 1989: two days, called by Hayden, to extend home and business owners’ deadline for paying property taxes.

– Sources: Kansas State Library, House and Senate Journals, 1874-1989.