Members of a House committee marched forward Wednesday with their attempt to seek relief from school finance litigation through a constitutional amendment, overhauling and advancing a resolution to place the issue before voters.
House leaders have no plan to consider the resolution this week, despite a threat from Senate leaders to block action on a school funding plan until the constitutional amendment passes. But Republicans face a difficult challenge to secure the two-thirds majority needed to pass either chamber.
“The speaker has already indicated the constitutional amendment will not run this week,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton. “Emotions are rather high. We didn’t think it would be prudent to put this before the entire body this week.”
Republicans hold an 85-40 majority in the House and need 84 votes to pass the resolution with a two-thirds majority. The Judiciary Committee passed House Concurrent Resolution 5029 by a 12-10 vote with three Republicans opposed.
Committee chairman Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, urged colleagues to support the constitutional amendment as a departure form the lines drawn on both sides of the school finance debate. He revised the language in the amendment to address several complaints raised during testimony that lasted three and a half hours on Tuesday.
Finch retained existing language that says “the Legislature shall make suitable provision” for school funding. The constitution would then clarify that only the Legislature has jurisdiction in determining what is adequate. Courts still could rule on whether the money is fairly distributed.
“We should go back to the voters and ask is this what you want?” Finch said. “Is this what you intend? And maybe the answer will be yes, we want you to keep doing it exactly the same way.”
Democrats complained about making hasty revisions to the Kansas Constitution, calling the process irresponsible, embarrassing, flawed and truncated.
“When we’re doing something where we’re playing with the three branches of government, in my estimation, that’s a pretty sacred and hallowed part of our founding documents,” said Tim Hodge, D-North Newton.
The 1966 process that produced the current constitutional language, said Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, D-Wichita, began a year before lawmakers passed a resolution and included studies and surveys.
Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said no one has been able to adequately explain why lawmakers shouldn’t trust the people who pay the bills to make the right decision. He dismissed concerns from Democrats about a process that began last week.
“I think it’s just a little insincere to think they would have accepted any constitutional amendment, no matter how many hours, days, weeks, months, years we spent on it,” Whitmer said. “No matter what we came out with, they never would have accepted it.”
Lawmakers face an April 30 deadline to present a plan with adequate and equitable funding to the Kansas Supreme Court. The House on Tuesday passed a five-year, $525 million funding increase for public schools.
Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, and Majority Leader Jim Denning, of Overland Park, initially made it clear they wouldn’t consider the funding increase without passing the amendment first. On Wednesday, they said they were willing to back down from their ultimatum if House members could explain how to pay for an increase that is projected to require a tax increase in future years.
“We think the best approach would be to pass a constitutional amendment,” Wagle said, “and clearly if there aren’t the votes to do that then we’d like the House to send over a tax package so that we don’t go into the red in 2020.”
Gov. Jeff Colyer wants lawmakers to produce a school finance plan this week and supports the amendment as a way to end decades of litigation. His top rival in this year’s GOP gubernatorial race, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, also supports the amendment and commended Wagle and Denning for balking at the $525 million plan.
“It is time for the people of Kansas to terminate the endless cycle of K-12 finance litigation trapping our state,” Kobach said. “We need a constitutional amendment prohibiting unelected judges from hijacking the Legislature’s power to make funding decisions.”