If that two-day meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary committees told us anything, it was subtle, and it deals with political spin.
What? Political spin in the Kansas Legislature? In an election year? Imagine that.
For all the complicated details of the Kansas Supreme Court’s May 27 threat to prevent a dime of state money going to schools after July 1 if the school finance formula remains unconstitutional, the whole issue essentially comes down to who gets blamed for school districts getting less money — no, not no money, just less.
The issue is the distribution of state funds to assist districts that have a local option budget isn’t strictly equitable, the high court says, and that means the budget bill that sends that money to districts is unfair, unconstitutional and the court can’t permit it to be carried out. That means no money for schools, and that’s the “close the schools” mantra everyone is talking about.
Now, it’s just a portion of the school finance bill — that LOB formula — that the court held unconstitutional, but the whole LOB program amounts to approximately $1 billion of the roughly $4 billion in state aid to public schools.
But it’s just a small piece of that LOB formula the court called unconstitutional, and the fix to make it constitutional costs approximately $38 million.
And, legislators are split on what do to about that $38 million. Some say the court is right and lawmakers should simply write the check.
Some say the court is wrong, and the formula is fine and they don’t want the court to essentially rewrite the state budget, which they maintain is a legislative responsibility. They’re ready for a showdown and figure if the court does close down schools, well, it’s the court overreaching its authority, and that’s reason enough to bounce four justices at this November’s judicial retention election.
Another group figures that just paying the $38 million means they can tell voters that while they might not agree with the court, they want their constituents’ children to have open-for-business schools to attend this fall. Yes, some of that “court meddling” with legislative action and “holding children hostage” stuff creeps in, but lawmakers can use that anti-court talk in their campaigns — and still keep schools open.
Another group of lawmakers represent districts where the $38 million and shuffling of money around under the now-repealed LOB aid formula means their districts will get less state aid for the upcoming school year than they expected. That group of largely big-city districts says that loss of money is worrisome and could lead to smaller-than-expected property tax cuts for their patrons — oh, and less than planned for educational opportunity for their pupils.
But, it all comes down to election-year politics, and what candidates want to campaign door-to-door and tell constituents that they voted for a plan that cuts state aid to their schools?
So that’s where the “severability clause” tactic looms large. A severability clause allows the court, or rather offers the option to the court, to just rip some portion of the school finance budget bill out, leaving the rest still alive. The high court in May held the constitutional equity problems with the LOB portion of the school finance bill and the amount of money involved essentially made that severability clause unusable. It would have brought down the entire school finance system, so it gave the Legislature a chance to fix it before July 1 to keep the schools open.
That brings up the numbers. The $38 million fix for the LOB is painful for a near-broke state, but probably doable. And, the $12 million to make sure the big districts don’t lose money is probably the key to whether the special session can pass a school finance fix and keep the schools open.
That’s where a narrow severability clause comes into play. Let the court kill the “hold harmless” money, after legislators have voted to spend that $12 million, showing their support for local districts that would otherwise lose money.
So, legislators have that vote to preserve their districts’ state aid, and it was the court, not them, that killed their districts’ extra money. Makes finger-pointing at the court pretty easy doesn’t it?
Unless, of course, voters see through the politics of that narrow severability clause ploy.
We’ll see, won’t we.
Syndicated by Hawver News Co.
of Topeka, Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report.