TOPEKA — Republican legislative leaders voted Tuesday to allocate $400,000 to hiring attorneys or consultants capable of persuasively arguing on behalf of lawmakers that state financing of K-12 public education complies with the Kansas Constitution.
Democrats on the Legislative Coordinating Council, which conducts business when the Legislature isn’t in session, objected to the Senate earmarking $100,000 to retain legal services of former Republican Sen. Jeff King and dedicating another $100,000 to hire a lawyer to represent the House. The two chambers have never hired separate attorneys for the same issue.
The LCC’s partisan divide remained as the GOP majority agreed to budget $200,000 to hire a expert in public school finance. The person would produce a report explaining how lawmakers’ approach for funding schools, and any changes made during the 2018 legislative session, should pass constitutional muster with the Kansas Supreme Court.
In October, the Supreme Court ruled the new approach to financing public education adopted by the 2017 Legislature was unconstitutional. The ruling came in response to Gov. Sam Brownback signing into law a bill adding $195 million to K-12 education this year and expanding the increase to $290 million next year.
The Supreme Court decision declared overall state funding to be inadequate and allocation of money to be unfair. Justices didn’t set a dollar threshold for compliance, but many lawmakers speculated the remedy could cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The court’s deadline for the fix is April 30.
Gov. Sam Brownback and other conservative Republicans denounced intervention by the Supreme Court, while Democrats and some Republicans cheered court actions resulting in new investment into K-12 schools.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the outside expert’s analysis of appropriation of state aid to districts would be part of the record available to the Supreme Court. The analyst’s role is to bolster the Legislature’s case, especially evidence pointing to the state’s work to comply with the constitution, when justices take up the case again in less than six months.
“Obviously, we’re going to address the Supreme Court’s concerns about our school finance,” Denning said. “They said the Legislature has time to get an expert witness and update the studies.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, were authorized by LCC to select the special school-finance adviser and enter into a contract with that person. Neither revealed potential candidates for the role of expert.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said he would likely object if Ryckman recommended former House Speaker Mike O’Neal as the House’s attorney on school finance. It’s unlikely Democrats would support O’Neal’s politically tainted legal guidance on the issue, he said.
“That would be highly polarizing and would be difficult to bring together a coalition,” Ward said. “Is that one of the names you’re considering.
Ryckman said selection of a House attorney on school finance was in the early stages. He said O’Neal’s name hadn’t come up in preliminary discussions, but the pick will be later reviewed by the LCC.
“We’ve are looking for names,” Ryckman said. “We do not have a person identified at this point.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, offered an alternative — rejected by LLC — that would allocate $100,000 to the Legislature’s audit division for an update of previous studies of the cost of education Kansas children.
“We should be depending on our own experts who work for us,” Hensley said. “I feel that $400,000 is a waste of money on Sen. King, on House counsel and a school finance expert.”
Wagle, the Senate’s president, said the Supreme Court flatly rejected the 2017 analysis of school finance prepared by the state auditors.
“The court rejected the work of our bipartisan staff,” Wagle said. “That’s what spurred the need for us to hire some outside expert witnesses. They absolutely have no trust in our staff.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican who attended the LCC discussion, said she’d been calling since 2013 for a new analysis of the cost of educating Kansas schoolchildren. She also said the existing legislative record on school finance, if properly organized and presented, might have prevailed with the Supreme Court. The problem is GOP leadership is hunting for a legal framework that delivers courtroom victories and doesn’t necessitate meaningful increases in K-12 funding, she said.
“I’m frustrated,” she said. “They want to win without spending money.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said the funding study ought to have occurred more than two years ago when the Legislature knew it had to rewrite the Kansas school finance formula.
“Here, in the bottom of the ninth inning, we’re hiring a consultant,” Kelly said. “I find this offensive. I think we’re wasting money.”