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Why changing the constitution may be harder than it looks

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Republicans in the Kansas Senate introduced a constitutional amendment this week aimed at putting an end to school finance lawsuits, including the one currently headed to the state Supreme Court.

It would limit the language in Article 6, Section 6, that requires the legislature to "make suitable provision for finance" of public schools by inserting another sentence saying that only the legislature can determine what "suitable" funding is.

After the November elections, when conservatives allied with Gov. Sam Brownback gained full control of the Senate, a lot of people speculated they would be able to run the table on pretty much any issue they wanted. And the issue of school finance lawsuits has been high on the conservatives' priority list for a long time.

But a few statehouse wags are parsing the results of a few recent votes, and it looks like the table may not be as clear as people thought. For the first time in many years, it's looking like the House may be the moderating force over the Senate this year, rather than the other way around.

First of all, changing the constitution is hard because, well, it's supposed to be. The framers felt that if someone wants to change the fundamental structure of government and alignment of powers, they should have to muster something more than a majority of 50 percent plus one.

In Kansas, it takes a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers just to put an amendment on a ballot for voter approval. (At that point, though, it only takes a simple majority of voters to pass one.) That's 27 votes in the 40-member Senate; and 84 votes in the 125-member House.

That doesn't seem to be a problem in the Senate. On Wednesday, conservatives got 28 votes in the upper chamber for a constitutional amendment to change the way Supreme Court justices are chosen, another key issue for the conservative movement.

The House, though, may be another game entirely. To do the math in reverse, it takes 42 "no" votes in the lower chamber to block a constitutional amendment. Democrats control 33 of those votes, and they've shown remarkable discipline in holding those together on issues they think are most important. That means they only need to peel of nine moderate-leaning Republicans to block a constitutional amendment.

This week's vote on the bill limiting political activity of public employee unions may provide a glimpse into how much power is held by conservatives on education issues. That bill passed the House Thursday, but with only 66 votes. That included 23 Republican "no" votes.

The thing to remember, of course, is that every vote is different. There is nothing to say that the next union bill to come up (and there are two more in the pipeline) will result in the same breakdown. Specific issues matter. And it really matters how much pressure the governor, House speaker or Senate president want to apply if he/she decides to make that issue a top priority.

But it's probably premature at this point to assume the outcome of any constitutional amendment is a foregone conclusion.

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