Archive for Thursday, July 7, 2005

School funding increase approved

July 7, 2005

— With the Kansas Supreme Court breathing down its neck, the Legislature on Wednesday broke a historic deadlock and approved a $148.4 million funding increase aimed at keeping schools open.

"Today, the Kansas Legislature came together to do the right thing for our schools and our children," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said in a prepared statement.

The measure, crafted by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans, ended a grueling 12-day special legislative session. Lawmakers representing Lansing, Reps. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, and Candy Ruff, D-Leavenworth, and Sen. Mark Gilstrap, D-Kansas City, Kan., all voted in favor of the legisaltion

House Democrats and a handful of Republicans also killed a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at restricting the state Supreme Court in school finance litigation.

The next step will be at 9 a.m. Friday when the Supreme Court holds a hearing to determine whether the Legislature's action complies with the court's order to increase school funding and distribute those funds in a fairer manner.

The court has threatened to cut off funding to schools if it rules lawmakers failed to comply with its order.

State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said she believed the legislation would satisfy the court.

"I am sure the people of Kansas are happy and the courts will be happy on Friday," she said after the House adjourned.

But House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, who voted against the proposal, said he had his doubts. "I don't think there is any guarantee that this court is going to accept what we did. And if that happens, there is a real danger that schools will close down," Mays said.

Alan Rupe, the attorney representing students who successfully sued the state, said he wanted to analyze the legislation before stating whether he believed it complied with the court order.

But, he added that the measure approved by the Legislature was "the closest thing we've seen come out of the Capitol in terms of the court order."

School funding debate

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said the funding bill would have far-reaching impact.

"This generation and future generations of Kansas children will benefit greatly from today's historic action," Hensley said.

But conservative Republicans said the increase would bankrupt the state and that the court overstepped its authority in telling the Legislature how much to appropriate. The bill will be funded by higher-than-expected tax receipts over the past several months.

"We are spending and mortgaging our grandchildren's future," said Rep. Bonnie Huy, R-Wichita.

The funding bill, combined with an earlier increase approved during the regular session, will mean that the Lansing district will get about $637,000 more in the coming school year. Lansing also will benefit by a part of the bill that buys down local property taxes for schools.

Constitutional amendment

On another issue, Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment that would prevent the state Supreme Court from closing schools as a remedy in school finance litigation.

The amendment gained the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate, but failed to get the two-thirds majority in the House.

Mays and supporters of the amendment said it was necessary to prevent the court from closing schools.

"It's deplorable that anyone would vote to allow the children of the state to be held hostage," he said.

But opponents said they found it deplorable that lawmakers would seek to remove people's rights to seek redress in the court system.

"Taking away the courts' tools to right wrongs is new territory," House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg, said.

The measure died in the House on a 74-49 vote, 10 votes short of the necessary 84 votes in the 125-member House.

Trigger removed

Wednesday's actions came after days of deadlock during the first special legislative session since 1989 and only the 20th in state history.

The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled the school finance system unconstitutionally inadequate and has ordered lawmakers to increase school funding by $143 million.

The court set a deadline of July 1, which the Legislature broke, and has now called sides in the lawsuit to the Friday hearing.

For days lawmakers were at an impasse.

Conservatives, led by Mays, didn't want to consider a school funding increase until the House and Senate advanced a constitutional amendment that would have prevented the court from ordering the Legislature to appropriate funds.

But after a three-day break for the July Fourth holiday, Mays said it was apparent that the votes weren't there to link the funding to the amendment. Conservatives then pushed for the amendment that addressed the closing of schools, but that also failed.

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