Archive for Saturday, April 22, 2006

Unfortunate distraction

A lapse in judgment by a Kansas Supreme Court justice is likely to complicate legislative progress on a school finance bill.

April 22, 2006


It's unfortunate that a conversation between a Kansas Supreme Court justice and a couple of state legislators may further distract lawmakers in their deliberations about funding K-12 education in Kansas.

The court announced Thursday that Justice Lawton Nuss had removed himself from the school finance case after acknowledging he had talked to two senators about school finance issues during a March 1 lunch. Although one of the senators was a close personal friend, the conversation represents an unfortunate lapse in judgment on Nuss' part.

In recognition of that lapse, Nuss has removed himself from the case, but it appears that won't be the end of the incident. House Speaker Doug Mays has said he is "appalled" by the reports and is talking to other legislators about appropriate responses, which could include a legislative investigation or a move to impeach Nuss.

Atty. Gen. Phill Kline already has launched an investigation into contacts between the court and legislators on the school finance litigation according to a state senator interviewed by Kline's staff. Limits on such communications serve an important purpose, but it's too bad, in a way, that people can't sit down and have a conversation sometimes.

There is no evidence that Nuss' conversation with the lawmakers had any impact on the pending case before the Kansas Supreme Court. There is no indication that there was any attempt at persuasion or that any deals were made.

The biggest impact of the conversation is that it opens the door for those who are angry over the court's order that the Legislature substantially raise funding for public schools to once again whip up animosity between the two branches. The result will be that the court will again become the issue, overshadowing school finance.

The main event when the Legislature reconvenes for its wrapup session on Wednesday is to decide on a school finance plan. Although legislators have known since last summer that school finance would be at the top of their agenda this session, they have failed to reach agreement on any plan, let alone a plan that will satisfy the court's mandate. Efforts to identify sufficient revenue for a reasonable three-year plan have been complicated by political posturing particularly in the Kansas Senate, where a couple of Republican senators are jockeying for position to benefit their own bid for governor and lieutenant governor in November.

An issue that should have been settled early in the legislative session or, certainly, by the end of the regular session now will be complicated by side issues that have little bearing on the primary job at hand. Tempers are flaring and political hackles have been raised. It looks like the wrapup session will be neither pleasant nor short.


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