Archive for Thursday, March 29, 2012

Kansas House rejects proposed amendment on funding

Kansas Speaker of the House Melvin Neufeld, pointing, talks about the House of Representatives chamber during a tour in the west wing of the newly renovated Kansas State Capitol in Topeka.

Kansas Speaker of the House Melvin Neufeld, pointing, talks about the House of Representatives chamber during a tour in the west wing of the newly renovated Kansas State Capitol in Topeka.

March 29, 2012

The Kansas House on Wednesday rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that sought to clarify that only the Legislature can decide how to appropriate state money.

The House voted 79-44, failing to reach the required 84 votes to change the constitution. Senators had not yet considered the proposal and no further action will be taken this session. The measure had the support of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP leaders in both chambers.

Legislators had given the proposal a strong 91-31 vote on Tuesday to send it to final action.

The change would have modified the Kansas Constitution to state clearly that only the Legislature — not the judicial or executive branches — can appropriate money.

Supporters say the change is necessary to prevent the Kansas Supreme Court from ordering legislators to increase state funding on programs, in particular school funding. A 2005 court ruling forced legislators to increase school funding by nearly $1 billion.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who championed the amendment, called its failure “a shame.” Despite that, he said the vote demonstrates that should the state Supreme Court order lawmakers to spend a certain amount of money for schools, the House would resist.

“I presume in the last 24 hours, the education lobbyists had some successful influence on our members — that would be the way that I would read it,” he said.

Opponents of the amendment argue that it would take away the rights of Kansas residents to seek a remedy in court when they believe they have been wronged by state government.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who opposes the measure, said some legislators saw that they shouldn’t block a remedy if they aren’t living up to their constitutional obligations on funding schools.

“Sometimes the courts have to get involved, and we shouldn’t limit any school district’s ability to enforce what is provided for in the Kansas Constitution,” Davis said.

Davis described the proposal as an attempt by Brownback to “find a way around the looming lawsuit.”

The Kansas Constitution currently says the state cannot spend any money unless the Legislature makes a specific appropriation. But in the school finance decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court told lawmakers they had to increase aid to public schools. The court also set specific figures and threatened to keep public schools closed unless legislators complied with the ruling.

Kansas faces another lawsuit from students and parents in four school districts, arguing that budget cuts in recent years have resulted in inadequate funding. The lawsuit will be heard by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County, a change from the previous school finance cases which were heard by a single judge.

The change was one of a series of efforts by legislators following the 2005 ruling to limit the power of the judicial branch to weigh in on school finance issues.

House Education Committee Chairman Clay Aurand, a Courtland Republican, voted for the proposed amendment but said he wasn’t overly disappointed in its failure.

“I actually don’t think it would have mattered that much,” he said. “I think the court would find a way around this amendment anyway.”

Legislators are considering a variety of school funding measures this session, including one pushed by Brownback to give the school finance formula its first significant rewrite in 20 years. A bipartisan group of senators is seeking a multiyear funding package that would restore some of the education cuts, as well as give local school districts more authority to raise property taxes to augment state spending.


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