Legislature may hire former senator who led effort to de-fund courts to consult on school finance

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, speaks to colleagues at the Kansas Statehouse in this photo from April 28, 2016.

? A former state senator who once spearheaded an effort to de-fund the Kansas judicial branch may soon be hired as an attorney to consult with the Legislature about how to respond to the Supreme Court’s latest ruling that declared current funding for public schools is unconstitutionally low.

Senate President Susan Wagle’s office confirmed Friday that former Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, is “up for consideration” for the contract.

The Legislative Coordinating Council, which is made up of the top House and Senate leaders from both parties, will meet Monday to consider engaging an attorney to advise the Legislature.

King, an attorney in private practice in the Kansas City area, did not run for re-election in 2016. During his last term, he served as both vice president of the Senate and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Attempts to reach him by telephone Friday were not successful.

A spokeswoman for Wagle said she thinks King is the most qualified for the job and that she has a working relationship with him.

Democrats, however, said they will oppose the hiring.

“I don’t think this is a very prudent or appropriate hire at this particular time,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said Friday during a news conference where he broke the news about plans to hire King.

King served two terms in the House starting in 2007. He was then appointed to a Senate seat in 2011 to fill a vacancy created when his predecessor, Derek Schmidt, was elected attorney general. He later won election to two full terms in the Senate before stepping down last year.

During his time in the Legislature he was often an outspoken critic of the court’s decisions in the 2005 school finance case, Montoy v. Kansas, when the court ordered the Legislature to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars.

He and other conservatives argued that the court had overstepped its bounds by ordering a specific appropriation, which they insisted was exclusively a legislative decision.

In 2014 and 2015, King helped push through bills that contained funding for the judicial branch. But they also included a substantive change in law that took away the Supreme Court’s authority to name the chief judges in Kansas district courts.

Furthermore, both bills contained “nonseverability” clauses that said if any part the bill was overturned, the entire legislation, including funding for the courts, would also be null and void.

The Supreme Court did overturn the judicial selection law in 2015, saying it violated a provision of the Kansas Constitution that gives the court “general administrative authority over all courts in this state.”

By that time, the threat of shutting down the judicial branch had attracted national attention, and lawmakers responded by passing a separate funding bill for the courts.

King denied at the time that he was trying to threaten the judicial branch.

“We’re saying that the policy and the budget pieces are interlinked,” he told the Journal-World in May 2015. He went on to say that if the Supreme Court should strike down the policy on naming chief judges, “then we would have to re-evaluate the budget based on knowing that we don’t have that policy provision.”

During the Montoy case, the Kansas Legislature petitioned to intervene in the case and be represented by its own attorney. But the court denied that request, saying that the state of Kansas, not the Legislature, was the named defendant in the case, and the state was represented by then-Attorney General Phill Kline’s office.

Last year, the Legislature hired a different attorney to advise it in the current case, Gannon v. Kansas.

That attorney, Toby Crouse, of the Foulston Siefkin law firm, was paid about $64,000 over a four-month period leading up to last summer’s special session to deal with an earlier decision in the Gannon case dealing with school funding equity.

“I did support that hire because I thought he brought a certain expertise to the table in terms of understanding the school finance issues,” Hensley said. “Senator King brings expertise, but it’s the wrong expertise, in my opinion, because of his perspective on the issue, and I just question how objective he can actually be in playing this role.”