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Archive for Thursday, July 6, 2006

Witnessesdecline to testify at panel

July 6, 2006

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— No one wants to talk any more to the House committee investigating communication about school finance between Kansas Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss and two state senators.

The committee canceled its meeting Wednesday and will have no witnesses today.

Five senators, including Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, have declined to appear before the panel this week, as well as Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' chief of staff, Troy Findley.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said he refused to testify because the House shouldn't be investigating senators.

"This whole process sets horrible precedent and starts us down a road we should not go down," Hensley said.

"What does it hold for us in the future in relations between the House and Senate?" he said.

The committee was formed by House Republican leaders after it was disclosed that Nuss had a March 1 conversation about a school finance bill with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.

Nuss has since removed himself from the pending school finance lawsuit and faces a disciplinary hearing before the Commission on Judicial Qualifications for talking to interested parties about a case before the court.

Morris and Brungardt are expected to testify to the commission, but they have declined to appear before the House committee, citing a provision of the Kansas Constitution that says "members shall not be questioned elsewhere" for what they say during legislative debates.

Pine has also been hesitant to testify, citing the same concerns as Hensley. But Pine did release to the committee a sworn statement he made about a conversation he had with Morris in which Morris allegedly mentioned his communication with someone with the state Supreme Court on what would be a suitable school finance plan.

Morris has stated that Nuss had asked how an announced House plan compared with previous cost studies, and said reports that legislative leaders would seek a bipartisan plan "sounded good." Nuss has said he asked Brungardt and Morris about a proposed House bill to determine whether a newspaper report about the funding levels was accurate.

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, said he couldn't testify before the House committee because of a family vacation, and Sebelius' office said Findley, a former state legislator from Lawrence, said he had scheduling conflicts.

Both Hensley and Findley have been sought by the committee to talk about what Morris said to Sebelius during a meeting at the governor's residence.

The investigating committee has the power to subpoena witnesses, but Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, and chairman of the panel, indicated he was not willing to do that, at least at this point.

He said he would like to wait until after Morris and Brungardt testify to the Commission on Judicial Qualifications "and see if there are additional questions for them." That hearing is scheduled for Aug. 10.

"My view on this is frankly that we probably have the information that we need to draft a report," O'Neal said. "We're really giving witnesses an opportunity to say if the newspapers got it right or wrong."

Some legislators have alleged that Morris' conversation with Nuss about school finance caused the failure of a smaller school finance bill.

Last year, the Kansas Supreme Court declared the school finance system unconstitutional because it shortchanged all students, especially those in low-income areas. The ruling resulted in a special legislative session, a $290 million funding increase, and a warning from the court that more money would be necessary to pay for the actual costs of education.

This year, lawmakers approved a three-year, $466 million increase for schools, which is now being reviewed by the court.

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