Topeka — The Kansas Senate on Wednesday approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the courts from school finance decisions and give exclusive power to the Legislature on how much state funding public schools receive.
Supporters of the measure said it was needed to rein in overreaching judges, while opponents said it would let legislators avoid their constitutional duty to adequately fund schools.
The resolution passed on a 27-13 vote, just enough to satisfy the two-thirds required majority for constitutional amendments. Only Republicans supported the proposal, while five Republicans and all eight Democrats opposed it.
If it receives a two-thirds majority in the House — 84 votes in the 125-member chamber — then Kansas voters would decide the issue in August 2014.
Republicans hold a 92-33 margin in the House, though some Republicans have voiced concerns about trying to remove judicial review of school finance. However, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has said he wants the Legislature “to make it clear that defining what is a suitable provision for public funding of education is a job for the people’s elected representatives — and no one else.”
The Senate action comes as state officials are deailing with a January ruling from a three-judge panel that the Legislature has failed its constitutional duty to adequately fund schools, and needs to allocate a minimum of $440 million to annual school funding. The state has appealed the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court.
In the wake of a Supreme Court decision in a similar school finance lawsuit in 2005, the Legislature adopted a three-year funding plan but then started to cut those dollars when the economy soured.
State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said Wednesday that as revenue started to rebound, the state should have restored the cuts, but instead Brownback pushed for tax cuts last year.
“We welched on the deal,” Holland said. “It’s a self-inflicted crisis.”
But the sponsor of the amendment, state Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, said elected representatives, rather than appointed judges, should be in charge of school finance.
“This gives the decision to the people of the state as to who they want to make the final decision over one of the most important things we do here in the Capitol,” King said.
Currently, the Kansas Constitution states that “The Legislature shall make suitable provision for the educational interests of the state.”
Senate Concurrent Resolution 1608 would add that financing the educational interests of the state “is exclusively a legislator power … and as such shall be established solely by the Legislature.”