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Funding schools

6/20/2013

Even though those supporting the massive income tax decreases in Kansas already are touting its success while detractors point out its failure, the truth of the matter is that nobody knows for sure. Not yet, anyway.

The full effect of removing almost half the state's revenue stream only will begin to surface in fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1. The first full year that results will be easily identified won't be until FY2015.

While we remain in the camp that does not believe any trickle-down miracle will occur in the Sunflower State, we might never have the chance to prove we were correct.

Long before then, the Kansas Supreme Court will have rendered its decision in Gannon vs. Kansas. It's not likely that Gov. Sam Brownback nor any member of the Legislature have forgotten about the school-funding lawsuit but, based on the two-year budget now signed into law, they made no provision for losing the case. We shall see if that is by design, depending on what transpires after the high court rules.

When decided by the District Court of Shawnee County earlier this year, the state was told its current education funding system not only was inadequate -- it was unconstitutional. The three-judge panel was not arbitrarily assuming an activist role by ruling for the plaintiff school districts, nor were they usurping the authority of lawmakers. Instead the judges relied on the precedents set in both Montoy cases, which used the Legislature's own identified costs of providing suitable and fair funding for K-12 public education.

It is unlikely the Kansas Supreme Court will be any less reliant on the judicial precedents. Which means the Legislature shortchanged school districts by approximately $400 million this year. That deficit grows in the upcoming school year and will hit $657 million in fiscal year 2015, according to analysis from the Kansas State Department of Education.

Yet the budget that was fashioned after 10 days of overtime and much consternation about raising the state sales tax to fill holes already created has no contingency for a negative ruling from the Supreme Court. At a minimum, legislators might be looking at coming up with $1.5 billion. In all likelihood, the amount will be significantly higher.

As we mentioned, the governor and lawmakers were aware of this potential liability. In order to sway the odds in their favor, two tactics were employed.

The first was to seek mediation of the court case. This is a move generally requested by the party with the weaker argument. If the school districts agree to some lesser amount, which we don't anticipate, the Supreme Court would still have to approve the compromise.

The second tactic was an attempt to change the way state judges are appointed. While progress was made with appellate level jurists, Supreme Court judges were not affected.

The remaining card in the governor's hand is how to assess blame if the state is compelled to produce billions more dollars for the schools. Should all the new tax breaks for businesses and wealthier Kansans need to be rescinded, heads will need to roll. And if Brownback or members of the Legislature attempt to blame the court or the schools, that blame will be misplaced.

Legislators set the funding formula, the amount of base aid per pupil, and the more-or-less equalizing local option budget into law. Solid research was utilized, as was the guiding principle of doing the right thing for school children.

Self-imposed revenue shortages created by massive tax breaks was based on unproven theories and guided by the principle of redistributing wealth to those who already have it. Any finger-pointing when the Kansas Supreme Court unveils its decision later this year will need to be directed at those who caused the problem.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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