House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr.
By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers are likely to take up a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the state Supreme Court from closing schools during a special session later this month.
The GOP-controlled Legislature will likely consider placing an existing state law banning a court order statewide shutdown during the session, which will deal with school finance legislation in response to a Supreme Court order. The Court ruled that lawmakers had until July 1 to respond to the order – relating to the equitable funding of public schools – or the court would block the state from releasing funds to school districts statewide, which is leading districts to say they would have to close. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) indicated on Tuesday that he will call lawmakers into special session later this month to tackle the finance issue. The Celock Report has learned that legislative committees could come back as soon as next week to discuss a possible constitutional amendment. Any amendment would be in addition to school finance legislation.
“The most contentious part of school finance has been the court’s insistence on closing down schools as a remedy in school finance litigation,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King (R-Independence) told The Celock Report. “We think the people of Kansas should decide if the closure of schools is an option the court should have in addressing school funding.”
King and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Barker (R-Abilene) have been discussing the possibility of having a joint session of their committees next week to start discussing the issue. Brownback has not indicated a date for the special session. Barker said a potential joint committee meeting would be “fact finding” in nature and allow for discussion of a closure amendment and any other amendments that committee members would want to discuss. Any joint session of the committees would need to be approved by House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) and Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita).
King and Barker have said they have not heard of other amendments coming. King said his focus for the last week has been on drafting a proposal relating to closure.
Kansas has a 2005 law – signed by then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) – that would prohibit the state Supreme Court from closing the schools as part of school finance litigation. Barker and King said that the court’s rulings have been centered on the wording of the constitution, which they said should place the wording in to the constitution.
Both also indicated that a constitutional amendment would allow the state’s voters to make a final decision. If an amendment passes by two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate, an amendment would go on the November ballot for statewide consideration. Kansas voters are already being asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment relating to the right to hunt and fish in November.
“Any time we give the citizens of Kansas a voice on an issue as fundamental as keeping schools open that is something we should strongly consider,” King said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe) told The Celock Report that a constitutional amendment would give voters a chance to weigh in on the debate, noting that the court case relates to roughly one percent of the $4 billion state education budget. He said that the debate is between branches of state government.
“When we go back we need to make sure that our kids, teachers and parents do not get caught up in the debate between branches of government,” he said. “It is not fair for our schools.”
Merrick’s spokeswoman Rachel Whitten said that “discussions are ongoing” about the final agenda for a special agenda but said that the constitutional amendment has been one idea mentioned.
Barker said that while a joint committee session would discuss the proposal, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees would meet again during the special session to vote on a proposed amendment before sending to the full House and Senate for votes. During the session, legislative budget writing committees are expected to meet to discuss the school finance legislation before floor votes.
The proposal is garnering support and opposition from lawmakers, with Democrats and moderate Republicans expressing opposition to an amendment. Rep. Stephanie Clayton (R-Overland Park) saying that she would not be supporting an amendment.
“I believe that it violates the separation of powers,” Clayton told The Celock Report.
Abbie Hodgson, chief of staff to House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) told The Celock Report that she would not be surprised by an amendment coming up for a vote during the special session “given the rhetoric that is floating around the Statehouse.”
Hodgson expressed doubt that voters around the state would be in agreement with lawmakers should an amendment reach the November ballot.
“The majority of Kansas voters have expressed a desire to adequately and equitably fund education,” she said. “I don’t think it stands a chance of passing.”
Rep. Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee) told The Celock Report that he would vote in favor of the constitutional amendment should it come up during the special session.
“I believe that it would be reassuring to Johnson County schools and parents,” he said.
The Kansas National Education Association stands in opposition to any attempts to amend the constitution on this issue. KNEA spokesman Marcus Baltzell told The Celock Report that the issue is not the Supreme Court but rather Brownback and lawmakers. He said that the court’s ruling will not shut schools but rather stop the disbursement of state funds. He noted that several school districts have said they will remain open on July 1, using local funds to operate, should lawmakers not pass a new plan.
“It seems that the ultra cons have decided they will not tolerate the three branches of government and the checks and balances that go along with it,” he said.
Baltzell said that the KNEA would rather Brownback and legislators focus on school funding and not on the state Supreme Court.
“The source of this problem is Governor Brownback and his allies in the Legislature,” Baltzell said. “Stop the shenanigans and focus on the job you were elected to do and do what the constitution says and equitable and adequately fund public schools.”
Conservative Republicans and the Supreme Court – which was largely appointed by Democratic and moderate Republican governors – have been at battle for a number of years, including issues of school finance and the court’s decision to overturn the death penalty in several cases. Earlier this year, lawmakers considered a constitutional amendment that would have given Brownback and the Senate control of Supreme Court appointment. Under the current system, Brownback appoints justices from a list provided by a screening committee dominated by state bar members. Brownback and his allies said that the change would take control out of the hands of the state bar, while opponents said it was a power grab.
King said that he wants to keep the focus on keeping schools in the state open in the future regardless of any further litigation. He said that a constitutional amendment would protect students in the future.
“I think the go-to solution for the court if they think the Legislature has improperly funded schools, is to shut them down all together,” King said. “Whatever your definition of suitable funding is, closing down schools is not suitable.”