GOP leaders authorize $400K for school finance attorneys, consultant

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, right, questions Sen. Jim Denning, the Republican leader, about hiring an outside consultant to advise the Legislature on school finance during a meeting Tuesday of the Legislative Coordinating Council.

? Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature agreed Tuesday to spend $400,000 on outside attorneys and consultants to advise them on how to respond to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that said current funding for public education is inadequate and unconstitutional.

The seven-member Legislative Coordinating Council, made up of the top Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers, voted along straight party lines to authorize each chamber to spend $100,000 hiring its own attorney for legal advice and $200,000 to hire an outside consultant who will update studies on how much money the state should be spending to fund public schools.

The vote came just eight days after an identical motion failed in the LCC. The difference Tuesday was that House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, changed his vote from no to yes, providing the necessary fifth vote needed for passage.

Senate leaders, for their part, have already decided who they want for their attorney: former Sen. Jeff King, who advised both chambers during the 2017 session and helped present arguments that the Supreme Court eventually rejected. But House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, who now has authority to name the House’s attorney, so far has not said who he wants to hire, but when he does, that decision will have to be approved by the full LCC.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, offered the motions but did not say why he thought it was necessary for the House and Senate to have separate attorneys. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the idea was already prompting suspicion.

“The name that comes to my mind that would be highly polarizing and very difficult to bring together a coalition that passes a bill would be former Speaker (Mike) O’Neal, who has been very involved in litigation in school finance,” Ward said.

Ryckman, however, said he has not made a decision.

“His name has not come up to us, but we’re not going to play a game of who we will not hire,” Ryckman said.

Meanwhile, Denning said he interpreted the Supreme Court’s Oct. 2 decision as strongly suggesting the Legislature do so when it wrote, “the State certainly will have ample opportunity for any sufficient studies it may wish to have conducted and then legislatively considered.”

Ward, however, suggested it would be easier and cheaper to use the Legislature’s own in-house staff, the Legislative Post Audit Division, to update the cost study it performed in 2006 during the previous school funding lawsuit.

“I really think the support person, or what you’re calling an expert, is what the court was talking about when it said, ‘show your work,'” Ward said. “I’m concerned that we’re going to start all over and not use the resources that we already have.”

But Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she believes the court has lost faith in the Legislature’s staff.

“In reading the latest opinion, the court rejected the work of our bipartisan staff,” she said. “And we relied very heavily in documenting our proceedings and in verifying our numbers on our bipartisan staff. And for the first time, the court in that ruling said it was unacceptable. So that’s what spurred the need for us to hire some outside expert witnesses, was their statement and their ruling that they absolutely have no trust in our staff.”

That appeared to be a reference to a portion of the opinion that rejected something called a “successful schools model,” a statistical study performed by the Legislative Research Department, under Denning’s direction, that was used to justify the per-pupil funding contained in the school finance bill lawmakers passed last year. The court rejected that as being insufficient, largely because it was only a four-page memo that failed to identify much of the data that was used.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, who came to observe Tuesday’s meeting, faulted the Senate and the state’s legal team for even presenting that study to the court.

“The legal defense relied on a Senate concept called a successful schools model that we never entertained on the House side, and the entire case was built around a four-page memo,” she said.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who also observed the meeting, criticized the LCC’s action, particularly its decision to rehire King as an attorney for the Senate.

“He lost the last case, so why would we want to send back the same attorney with the same legal background and legal mind to represent us this time?” Kelly said. “I also don’t see the need for a House lawyer and a Senate lawyer when this is a joint bill … I find this a complete and serious waste of money. I would much rather just put this toward solving the school finance problem rather than these vacant efforts to win a case when no one thinks we can win. The court has spoken.”