Archive for Wednesday, March 15, 2006

House to debate constitutional change to rein in court

March 15, 2006


— Still upset over the Kansas Supreme Court telling them how much to spend on education, House members are getting ready for another run at a proposed constitutional amendment making it clear that only the Legislature has the power to appropriate money.

During last summer's special session, the proposal cleared the Senate but failed to get the needed two-thirds majority - 84 votes - in the House. But Speaker Doug Mays and other supporters said the chances are better now.

"The reasons given then for it not passing were we were in the heat of battle, emotions were high and it hadn't had a hearing," said Mays, R-Topeka. "There's no excuse for not voting for this and reaffirming the true role of the Legislature."

On Tuesday, the House Select Committee on School Finance sent the proposal to the chamber, and Mays said it likely will be debated next week. If passed by the Legislature, it must be ratified by voters in November to become part of the Kansas Constitution.

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said the proposal stands a good chance of passage in his chamber.

However, Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington said, "The general public isn't concerned about the court at this point. That's not a hot button issue."

And Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said during a news conference, "A lot of the furor about not dealing with school finance and amending the constitution seems to have shifted to people saying, 'Roll up our sleeves. We'll deal with school finance and we'll be cautious about amending the constitution,' which I think is appropriate."

Rep. Mike O'Neal, the proposal's co-sponsor, said several House members didn't vote for the plan last year because they felt the special session should focus on finding additional money the court ordered to be spent on schools.

"The argument this summer was there wasn't the time to do it," said O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "This is the time to do it."

Legislators this year are trying to figure out a way to finance education that will pass court muster. Last year, the court ruled the Legislature failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund education in Kansas.

During their regular 2005 session, lawmakers allocated additional money for schools. But the court responded by mandating an additional $143 million be spent on schools, triggering the special session.

O'Neal said the proposal is an attempt to "rein in the court" when it comes to telling the Legislature how much money to spend.

"We don't think the court has that power," O'Neal said. "When it comes down to telling us how to spend taxpayer dollars, that crosses the line."

Aside from making clear that only the Legislature can appropriate money, the proposal also says "any existing order" directing legislators to appropriate money shall be unenforceable once the provision is adopted by voters.

That wouldn't address last year's court order, because it has been carried out. But O'Neal said, "We're trying to protect against the court ordering us to make future appropriations."

This isn't the first time the Legislature has shown its discontent with the court, largely over its school funding ruling, but also because the court struck down the state's death penalty law in 2004.

Last week, the Senate failed to pass a proposed amendment requiring confirmation by senators before justices could serve on the Supreme Court.

That would have been in addition to the current process, where a nominating commission interviews applicants and picks three candidates from whom the governor makes the selection.

The House Judiciary Committee last month rejected a proposal to scrap the nominating commission process and replace it with justices being appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.


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