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Archive for Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Supreme Court still on legislators’ minds

Some lawmakers continue to grumble about court overstepping authority

January 17, 2006

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— During last summer's special session, livid legislators complained about the Kansas Supreme Court ordering them to come up with more money for public schools, triggering failed efforts to rein in the court's power.

This year, school finance is the top legislative issue, and the court still has the final word on whether lawmakers spend enough to meet a mandate to provide a suitable education for 460,000 students in 300 school districts. Legislative auditors last week said that would cost at least $400 million.

"I think the animosity toward the court is still there and is going to be there for a while," said Senate Vice President John Vratil, R-Leawood. "A lot depends on subsequent opinions from the court. They can either fan the flames of the animosity or they can cool them."

Questions about court

The big questions are: What will the court do next and when will it do it?

Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, expects the high court to rule on whether the study is valid before the 2006 session ends. But Atty. Gen. Phill Kline expects the court to wait until the session is over.

And as the 2006 session's second week approached, some lawmakers were still grumbling about the court overstepping its authority.

"We haven't forgotten about it," Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler.

During the special session, the Senate passed two proposed constitutional amendments dealing with judicial power. One said only the Legislature can appropriate money. The other would have prevented courts from closing schools to force legislators to obey judicial orders on education funding.

Both proposals failed in the House, even though conservative Republicans led the charge, complaining about the court crossing the separation of powers line and encroaching on the Legislature's appropriation turf.

New proposals

This session, Huelskamp and Journey have both proposed amendments dealing with judicial power. Both would have to pass the Legislature by a two-thirds majority and be ratified by a statewide vote to become part of the Kansas Constitution.

Huelskamp's proposal says neither the judicial nor executive branches have any authority to direct the Legislature to make any appropriation or redirect spending.

Journey wants to change the section of the constitution that says the Legislature "shall make suitable provision for education interests in the state" to read the Legislature "shall provide for finance of the educational interests of the state in the manner and amount as determined solely by the Legislature."

That would remove "suitable provision," which was a keystone of the court ruling, and make clear that only the Legislature can determine school spending.

Debate expected

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said he expects his chamber to debate the issue but doesn't know when.

"One thing we need to do is sort through these things and get behind one approach or the other," said Schmidt, R-Independence. "We still have a lot of members interested in addressing the problem."

Schmidt said another element of the debate involves the State Board of Education, which gets its powers from the constitution and isn't beholden to the Legislature on matters of education policy.

"They have used that authority to set standards which the court has used to order the Legislature to spend more money," Schmidt said.

Also pending in the Senate is a proposed constitutional change to require Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices, who are appointed by the governor. Schmidt said he intends to bring up the measure up this year.

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