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Legislative folly

To say the Kansas school finance formula is contentious would be an understatement. The instruction given by the state constitution is simple, yet results in almost theatrical argumentation every year inside the Statehouse.

This year's twist threatens to place how that state pays for K-12 public education in the theater of the absurd.

At issue is what constitutes "suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state." Each year, the answer is provided by the amount of base aid per pupil the Legislature provides. That amount is, by definition, law.

Unhappy with the way the Kansas Supreme Court interprets the constitutionality of that law, legislators are prepared to fight back. Being introduced to the Senate today is a recommendation to amend the Kansas Constitution. If approved, the measure would declare the Legislature has exclusive power to determine how much money is spent on schools.

Here's the problem, and we want to ensure all our readers are aware: The Constitution already says that. Article 11 states: "The legislature shall provide, at each regular session, for raising sufficient revenue to defray the current expenses of the state for two years." Article 2 reads: "No money shall be drawn from the treasury except in pursuance of a specific appropriation made by law." And, of course, the infamous Article 6 that says: "The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

The Senate Education Committee wants to add a sentence to Article 6. "The financing of the educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power" and "shall be established solely by the Legislature."

Which adds absolutely nothing, other than what lawmakers believe will be an attempt to put the judicial branch in its place. They are tired of repeated rulings from the high court that forces them to spend more on education than they choose to any given year.

The latest such decision, Gannon v. State of Kansas, stated Kansas students were being deprived of a suitable education because funding levels were too low. The court even offered a specific figure for the per-pupil base state aid: $4,492. Last year, the Legislature placed the figure at $3,838. Gov. Sam Brownback's budget for the upcoming year has the figure pegged at $3,852 -- an increase of less than 0.4 percent.

So, where did the court get its figure? From the Legislature. In 2008, lawmakers set BSAPP at $4,492. When succeeding legislatures began decreasing the amount, a lawsuit was filed. The court merely was ruling on whether the law in 2008 was being followed. Obviously, it wasn't.

"Fundamentally, we believe that the best point at which to begin to effect a cure to the constitutional deficiencies we have found in the reductions in the (per-pupil aid) is to go back to the 2008 session when a constitutionally compliant legislature amended (school finance law) to adjust (per-pupil aid) for FY2010 and forward to $4,492," the court wrote in its judgment.

What this year's Legislature doesn't like is a law set by a previous Legislature. Any efforts to slap the court's about its "judicial activism" is nonsense.

We are not surprised this year's crop of legislators is pursuing nonsense. But such folly should not involved altering the document that guides this great state.

We have little doubt, however, that both houses will pass the proposed amendment with ease. Which will leave it to the voters, perhaps as early as January 2014, to decide if the Kansas Constitution should be changed. We beseech citizens to recognize that even if such language was in the Constitution today, the judiciary branch still would be tasked with judging whether laws are constitutional or if they're being applied correctly.

Separation of powers is one of the primary reasons our country exists to this day. Tinkering with such a fundamental component of this democratic republic, particularly when it's based on willful ignorance, is not a good way to govern.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net