Kansas Speaker Backs Article V Convention; Explains School Finance Philosophy

By John Celock

The speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives used a radio interview Friday morning to outline his thoughts on school finance, while also endorsing a state called constitutional convention.

Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) said on the “Joseph Ashby Show” on KQAM radio in Wichita that he wants to see the state’s school funding formula redesigned to be less “convoluted and complicated” while eliminating spending on what he said is not the core functions of government. During the interview, Merrick also endorsed the idea of an Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution, a practice that would occur if two-thirds of the states were to petition for the convention.

“We’re going to come up with a new formula that is not as convoluted and complicated as it is now,” Merrick said of school funding. “There are very few people who understand the formula. It is so crazy and confusing, you can’t comprehend it.”

Gov. Sam Brownback (R) asked lawmakers in his State of the State address last week to end the state’s current school funding formula for two years and utilize a block grant program to fund local school districts, while devising a new formula. The school funding issue has been at the center of controversy in Kansas, with the state teacher’s union and parent groups in suburban Johnson County calling for the continuation of the current formula and increased school funding, while others have called for an overhaul. Last year, lawmakers added new funding for schools following a state Supreme Court decision.

The education funding issue dominated last year’s gubernatorial campaign, with unsuccessful Democratic nominee Paul Davis focusing almost exclusively on education issues. Davis and his allies accused Brownback of defunding the state’s schools, while Brownback said that he increased state school funding following cuts made by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D). The teacher’s union and its allied groups have also been angered over the GOP-controlled Legislature passing legislation last year that would allow local school districts to eliminate teacher tenure.

Merrick told Ashby Friday that the state cannot sustain the current funding formula. He cited the equalization policies that award the Blue Valley School District in Johnson County, which Merrick represents, an addition $35 million. Merrick said that should not be occurring since Blue Valley is one of the richest districts in the state.

Merrick used the interview to outline his views on the state budget, saying that spending needs to be cut to make the multimillion hole in the budget.

“In these times, especially, we have to look at everything and figure out what we’re doing that is not our core mission,” he said. “I have asked my budget chairs to drill down and look at this stuff.”

In terms of the Article V convention, Merrick said that he has had reservations in the past over the subject. He said concerns over a so-called “runaway convention” have been at the forefront of any hesitation. He said as he has reviewed more documents on the subject and the work of other groups he has realized that a focused convention can occur.

In December, a new national bipartisan group, the Assembly of State Legislatures, convened in Washington to push for an Article V convention focused on balanced budget and campaign finance issues. The convention was attended by Kansas state Reps. Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee) and Kevin Jones (R-Wellsville) and state Sen. Caryn Tyson (R-Parker).

Merrick told Ashby that he is hearing more about the convention and another House member from the Wichita area has expressed interest in getting involved.

“There has been a lot of chatter about that,” he said. “A lot of my members have asked about it.”

Hildabrand told The Celock Report that he welcomes Merrick’s support.

“I am glad to hear that Speaker Merrick supports an Article V amendment Convention,” Hildabrand said. “I think state leaders from around the country are realizing that Washington cannot be expected to fix itself. The states must exercise their constitutional authority to ensure the federal government is faithful to the rule of law.”