When a three-judge panel ruled last week that the state of Kansas is not fulfilling its legal obligation to suitably finance public education, the reactions from various corners have been telling.
The governor's office, for example, said the ruling was not unexpected -- and that "the courts are drastically increasing the property tax burden on every Kansan."
The attorney general's office vowed to fight the ruling in court.
Top-ranking legislators in the House and Senate, both of which are now overwhelmingly conservative Republican, said they might put forth a constitutional amendment to clarify the roles of the various branches of government -- specifically that the Legislature sets fund levels, not the courts.
Those pleased to see the district court order the base state per pupil amount raised from $3,783 to $4,492 either work inside a school or for an entity supporting education employees, or are among the parents and school districts that lodged the complaint.
Any way you look at it, the state will need to come up with an additional $440 million in the next year in order to satisfy the judicial decree. Add that to the $267 million budget shortall already expected, and the state is close to three-quarters of a billion dollars in the hole. The session that began this week might prove more complicated than predicted -- even with like-minded majorities in both houses and a governor prepared to sign bills as soon as they hit his desk.
Rather than rush constitutional amendments through the process or wait until the 88th day of a 90-day session to decide the amount of base state aid, elected leaders would be better off attempting to bridge the chasm that exists regarding the interpretation of the Kansas Constitution. It holds: "The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."
The judiciary branch obviously believes $3,783 per pupil is too low. Constitutionally too low. So do educators and parents who keep suing the state when legislators attempt to give schools less than they promised. It was lawmakers who came up with the $4,492 figure, not the courts.
Legislators and the governor believe their responsibility is met when they do the best possible given that year's revenue stream. And then proceeds to choke off revenues by slashing income taxes.
The court likely committed a faux pas by pointing this out. In the ruling, the judges wrote: "It appears to us that the only certain result of the tax cut will be further reduction of existing resources and from a cause, unlike the Great Recession which had a cause external to Kansas, that is home-spun, hence, self-inflicted ... While the Legislature has said that educational funding is a priority, the passage of the tax cut bill suggests otherwise."
While true, the court has in effect invited lawmakers to spend time finding ways to retaliate. Given the size of the budget hole, this is not where the Legislature should be focused.
Instead, it should be attempting to provide suitable provision for education without simply pushing costs down to the local level. The property tax reform of the 1990s resulted in the state picking up a larger share of education funding. The Legislature itself took the responsibility of ensuring that the education every Kansas child receives should not be dependent on the wealth of the district in which they live. That is something the child cannot control.
The state can control whether the taxation model is progressive or regressive. The "experiment" begun by Gov. Sam Brownback last year -- and expected to be furthered this year -- attempts to redistribute tax obligations from the rich and middle classes to the poor. This regressive approach might have hit a roadblock in the form of the judiciary branch.
Judges are supposed to rule on the constitutionality of laws legislators propose and the governor signs. The state and the nation were designed with such checks and balances. Elected officials would do well to keep their roles straight.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry