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Kan. Legislature convenes Monday

1/12/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

When the Legislature convenes Monday, all eyes will be on the Kansas Supreme Court.

"The big issue is the school funding lawsuit," said Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton. "That will impact a number of issues upcoming in the year."

And not just in terms of how much money the state will have to ante up for education.

While it's still unclear how the court -- already at odds with their counterparts in both the legislative and executive branches of state government -- might rule on the school funding lawsuit, but Hineman said word in the Rotunda suggest it will come during what is supposed to be a 90-day session.

It couldn't come at a worse time, however.

"It's an election year," said Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell. "Every member of the House is up for election.

"It's going to be tough to get anything done. There aren't going to be any tax increases -- or tax cuts for that matter."

Depending on how the court rules, that could lead to a stalemate.

The judicial branch of state government has been kicked to the curb in recent years, and this year could prove to be especially troublesome.

While there's concern about the school finance issue, other cases -- including the court's October decision invalidating Sunflower Electric's permit to build a coal-fired power plant -- have raised consternation in the Legislature and with Gov. Sam Brownback.

All this bad blood comes at a tough time for the state's court system, with Chief Justice Lawton Nuss asking for an additional $8.2 million to make its budget whole.

Without it, there's a chance Nuss could order furloughs for court personnel -- other than judges -- lasting six to seven weeks. A day's furlough saves approximately $250,000.

That won't work, Hineman said of the furloughs, even though he's seen the animosity that developed in the wake of a prior school finance lawsuit.

Ostmeyer said he's unsure what might happen, especially because budget committees in both chambers are headed by strongly conservative members.

How the Legislature responds to the court's decision will depend on what the court has to say.

Already, a three-judge panel found per-pupil base aid should be $4,492. That's $654 more than what the Legislature funded last year -- a shortfall of $440 million based on student numbers from last year.

"And I see that in the districts I represent," Hineman said of the decline since 2005, when legislators laid out a school funding plan.

He's only heard a range -- $440 million to $700 million, if the court upholds the initial finding -- of what it might cost to fully fund school finance.

"Those are very big numbers," Hineman said. "Even the $440 million would be difficult."

As well, he's confident an adverse ruling would spawn a number of other legislative initiatives, including efforts to either change the school finance law or quash the court's ruling.

Add in the election year issue, and it might be especially difficult to convince enough legislators to vote for boosting the amount of money going into school finance.

Both Hineman and Ostmeyer agree it's unlikely there will be any change in the state's concealed carry law.

"The laws were passed overwhelmingly," Hineman said. "I don't see the Legislature backing down."

"That was such a popular item in both chambers," Ostmeyer said of the concealed carry law. "I just don't see where there's a lot to change. It's an issue we've been working on for four years."

And he doubts any money will trickle down to cities and counties in the state, many of whom have complained it is an unfunded mandate.

Hineman agreed, noting Topeka is good about handing down unfunded mandates "and then whining about unfunded mandates from the federal level."

For Ostmeyer, he's hoping people simply accept it.

"After we've had it a while, I hope people will accept it and we can move on," he said.