TOPEKA — As legislators mull how to respond to the Kansas Supreme Court’s finding that school funding is unconstitutional, some are seeing three options: raise taxes, cut other spending or defy the court.
The Legislative Budget Committee got a briefing Thursday on the latest school finance ruling from the Supreme Court that found state funding for K-12 schools inadequate and inequitable, and legislators sought answers from staff on what options they might have.
Legislators have until April 30 to submit briefs supporting their remedy to the situation, and the Supreme Court plans to rule on the new structure by June 30. They’ve already expressed concerns about meeting that obligation. They passed a two-year $1.2 billion tax increase this summer, and another school finance bump likely would require more money that could not be spent on other cash-strapped departments.
“I see three options, and each of them is difficult,” said Assaria Republican Rep. Steven Johnson.
Johnson chairs the House tax committee and worked on the tax increase package that passed this year. He said those three options were to raise taxes, cut other spending or fail to meet the court’s requirement. A possible fourth option would be to do some combination, or a “cocktail of bad ideas,” he said.
Johnson and conservative Republican Rep. Erin Davis, of Olathe, said cutting spending and raising taxes would be difficult votes.
“It’s really not about whether or not individual legislators want to put more money into education,” Davis said. “It’s really about what the political process will allow to have happen and whether or not we can get the votes to get it done and a governor to sign it.”
Davis said she could not see how the problem played reducing spending elsewhere, but agencies already have seen budget cuts.
“And further cuts would very much hamper the ability for them to provide the core services of government that Kansans deserve and we owe them and they’ve come to expect,” Davis said.
Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, said she thought there was not enough money that could be cut from other budgets to “make a dent” in what legislators need to pay for schools. She said she thought some form of revenue bump likely would be most of the answer, if not the whole thing. Kelly said that could take the form of another across-the-board tax increase or a cobbled-together revenue package.
Senate Republicans made it clear they did not favor a tax increase following Monday’s ruling.
The third option — defying the court — could set up a showdown between the legislative and judicial branches of state government.
Davis questioned the court’s role in the school finance issue and said she thought it was a political one.
“I’m of the belief that this school funding question is a political question, which is non-justiciable by a court because it is solely reliant on a purely political body that is an elected body to put the monies into it and to say what is adequate and what is equitable,” Davis said.
The state is required under the Kansas Constitution to provide children an education, and the Gannon rulings have tested whether the Legislature is living up to that requirement.
Kelly said she thought justices would be “derelict of their duty” if they did not make sure the Legislature was funding schools.
“I think it’s the court’s responsibility to make sure that we fairly and adequately fund our schools,” Kelly said. “It’s in the constitution, and they have a responsibility to uphold the constitution.”
The court laid out a firm stance in Monday’s ruling, the fifth in the Gannon lawsuit, which has been active since 2010. Justices said they no longer would allow themselves to be “complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education.”
Alan Rupe, who represents the school districts suing the state, said he read that as a warning they could shut down schools.
Kelly said she thought the court was drawing a line in the sand and telling legislators not to “play chicken” over school funding. She said she could not speak for the court and say whether it would shut down schools, but it is their prerogative to do so.
Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said he did not know whether that meant the court would take such a drastic measure. He said he thought it could mean holding the Legislature in contempt, or other similar measures.
Jason Long, a staff member, said the revisor’s office still was digesting the ruling and looking for options on legislators’ behalf.