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School finance decision brings work

In January last year, a three-judge panel of the Shawnee County District Court ruled in Gannon v. State that funding for public schools was unconstitutionally inadequate. The ruling called for the Legislature to raise the Base State Aid Per Pupil from $3,838 to $4,492 which would result in a cost of approximately $437 million for state taxpayers. However, the district court's ruling was stayed by the Kansas Supreme Court in February of last year, officially indicating they would hear the case themselves. On Friday, the Supreme Court released the long anticipated ruling in Gannon v. State.

The Supreme Court's decision emphasized both equity of funding, and the resulting outcomes of funding are important in determining the adequacy of state education dollars. With regard to equity, the court identified two areas within the current funding formula where it believes the Legislature has fallen short in its considerations. Most significantly, the Supreme Court's decision rejected the district court's notion "suitability" of education under the state constitution is determined by a dollar amount. Rather, the court sent the case back to the district court to review state funding based on the outcomes produced.

Republicans long have argued outcomes should be the determining factor when considering the adequacy of school funding. Additionally, Republicans agree all Kansas students should have equal opportunity to receive a quality education. The court's focus on these two areas is an important precedent for the Legislature going forward. As the session progresses, the Senate is committed to seriously considering the areas where the court said equity is lacking and to ensuring the great potential of Kansas students is being achieved.

In addition, more functionally, the decision allows us to see the entire picture. Every legislative session is a puzzle, and without all the pieces, it would have been difficult to assemble a final body of work. As difficult as the task might be, this allows us to truly begin our work and build the best body of work possible.

This week

This legislative week was shortened to allow clerical staff to catch-up with the amount of bills passed before the turnaround deadline. Although we had two days off, there still was a lot of committee work and debate on the Senate floor as the next big deadline is April 4.

Religious liberties

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee had an informational hearing on the issue of religious liberty, and more specifically, HB 2203 -- a measure passed and signed into law last session protecting Kansas religious liberties. The hearing came after the more controversial HB 2453 was killed in the Senate as a result of significant flaws with the drafting of the legislation. Senate leadership decided it would not be beneficial to work the legislation this year.

In the hour-and-a-half hearing, committee members heard from a number of experts regarding HB 2203, who ensured it does, in fact, protect Kansans' individual religious liberties. In fact, some testified our current laws are some of the strongest in the entire nation. Testimony was provided by Professor of Law Helen Alvare of George Mason University; L. Martin Nussbaum, an attorney specializing in religious institutions; Professor Mark S. Scarberry, Pepperdine University School of Law; Robert Hingula, Kansas Employers for Liberty Coalition; Tom Witt, executive director for Equality Kansas; and Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

The need for House Bill 2453 did not come without reason. Religious liberty is a dearly held belief of every American. We have seen countries fight for their right to practice their religious beliefs, and our country has fought to protect that same freedom. We also believe in individual freedoms. When we draft legislation every word matters. HB 2453 unfortunately was crafted in a manner that would have opened up the state to a number of legal vulnerabilities and unintended consequences. Those realities, paired with the greater understanding of the protections contained within HB 2203 convinced Senate leaders that current laws adequately protect Kansans' individual right to religious liberty.

Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, represents

the 40th District.

ralph.ostmeyer@

senate.ks.gov

Judicial budget

On Thursday, the Senate considered Senate Substitute for HB 2338 -- the judicial budget reform. The bill adds $2 million in new money from the state general fund and $8 million in savings from restructuring and docket fees. The dollars would be used for non-judicial court staff and help modernize the judicial branch. S Sub for HB 2338 complied four judicial reform bills including: SB 313, SB 364, SB 365 and SB 377. As I discussed last week regarding the judicial reform bills, these four bills continue to fix recommendations made by a panel comprised of individuals from the Legislature and the judicial branch, referred to as the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Specifically, SB 364 allows the chief judges of each of our 31 judicial districts, if they desired, to allocate the funds provided to their district by the Kansas Supreme Court. The Kansas Supreme Court still will control how much money each district receives. If chief judges do not want to make the budget decision for their district, they do not have to participate and the current system, which the Kansas Supreme Court controls all budget and personnel decision, will remain.

Property tax transparency

The Senate considered HB 2047 this week in order to create transparency for local communities when their governments approve annual budgets or appropriations which are funded by an increase to property taxes or for increases to property valuation. When the votes are cast by the local municipalities, they then would need to publish the increase in the newspaper or on a public website.

February receipts

Last week, the Kansas Legislative Research Department reported total State General Fund receipts from July 2013 through February 2014 totaled $3.65 billion, approximately $128.3 million above estimates. Total receipts for the month of February were $329 million, or $97.6 million above estimates.

For tax revenue sources that exceeded the estimate by more than $1 million were individual income ($104 million), corporate income ($20.5 million), insurance premiums ($9.5 million), financial institutions ($1.4 million) and compensating use ($1.1 million). There was only one tax source that fell below the fiscal-ear-to-date estimate by more than $1 million, retail sales.