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Constitutional amendment proposed House tentatively approves measure targeting school funding lawsuit

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at 9:34 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, March 28, 2012, at 6:11 a.m.

TOPEKA – Voters would decide whether the state Supreme Court has the right to tell the Legislature to spend more money on education under a measure advanced by the state House on Tuesday.

The proposed constitutional amendment stems from a 2005 school finance lawsuit that led to a Supreme Court ruling directing the legislature to spend $285 million more on schools. That, the court ruled, is what it would take to fulfill the Legislature’s constitutional mandate to provide children with an adequate education.

But many Republicans say the court overreached. Now they want to clarify that the executive and judicial branches of state government can’t tell the Legislature how to spend money.

Gov. Sam Brownback, House Speaker Mike O’Neal and Senate President Steve Morris have all endorsed the move, which voters would see on the November ballot this year if two-thirds of the House and Senate agree.

Tuesday’s debate linked the ballot measure to the core American principles of separation of powers and no taxation without representation.

O’Neal called the 2005 court ruling a “rogue” decision. He said it was the first time that unelected judges told elected lawmakers that they had to spend more money, a move he said defies the constitution and is the sole reason lawmakers have to put the issue to the voters.

“We should not have to do this, but we must,” he said.

Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said the state constitution gives the Legislature – not the executive or judicial branches – authority to spend tax dollars. But, he said, the 2005 school finance ruling conflicts with those principles.

If two equal branches of government can’t agree, then the voters should decide, he said.

Democrats fought the resolution, saying it could close the door for people who want to challenge whether the state is fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding for education – or virtually any other state service.

“This amendment is about taking away the power of the people,” said Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka. “And that’s unconscionable.”

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said that students and their parents should have the right to challenge the Legislature’s decisions about education funding and that students only have one shot at a quality education.

“While we’re having a very high-tone and principled debate about the division of powers, schoolchildren are missing their opportunity,” he said.

A coalition of school districts that includes Wichita has sued the state again, contending that budget cuts in recent years have led to insufficient funding.

The 91-31 vote advances the issue to final House action on Wednesday. It will take a two-thirds vote – or 84 in favor – for it to pass the House. The Senate has yet to debate the issue.

Rep. Bob Brookens, R-Marion, said the constitutional amendment goes too far and would allow the Legislature to defund the courts if it got upset enough at a decision, leaving the people no legal recourse.

“We’d smile for a moment,” he said, “until we realized that the only thing that stands between us and tyranny is the courts.”

Read HCR 5006 at: http://bit.ly/GUkEG8.

Reach Brent Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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