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Brownback, Wagle: School finance ruling could trigger public fight over judge selection

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, at 3:20 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 7, 2014, at 9:49 a.m.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Senate President Susan Wagle told a Wichita business audience Thursday that the upcoming session of the Legislature will hinge on how the state Supreme Court rules in a school-finance lawsuit – a decision that could push lawmakers toward trying a constitutional amendment to change the way justices are selected.

“If that (ruling) comes out at the first of the legislative session, that will probably dominate the legislative session,” Brownback said. “It will be about K-12 financing and whatever the court rules.”

The justices are considering whether to uphold a decision by a three-judge panel that ruled the state is underfunding schools and hasn’t met its constitutional obligation to provide suitable funding for public education.

Wagle – whom the governor called a “rock star and personal hero of mine” – projected that a decision requiring lawmakers to increase school funding would push the Legislature to go to voters with a constitutional amendment to change the way Supreme Court justices are picked.

“It will be a very tough year if we’re at odds,” Wagle said. “If we get that ruling down, what we’re going to do is focus on what is the role of the Supreme Court.

“Should they be interpreting law? Should they be appropriating money?” she added. “They aren’t elected and we’re real concerned that when they do analyze how much money is appropriate for K through 12 funding, they don’t get to hear all the other testimony we hear from the other groups in the state, whether it be transportation, corrections, higher ed, all the other entities we fund.”

Brownback also disputed his critics’ claims that he’d cut base state aid for education, the payments school districts use to help fund day-to-day operations.

Brownback said he’d actually increased the state’s contribution to base aid, but the schools got less because of the expiration of federal stimulus dollars that propped up school budgets at the height of the recession.

“That federal money went away. We put more state money in, but it wasn’t as much as the federal money went down,” Brownback said. “The state money went up, but the federal money went down and I get blamed for cutting base state aid, which I didn’t do.”

Later, Brownback said that a court order for increased K-12 funding could go as high as $500 million a year, money he says the state can’t afford.

And he hinted that could mean further cuts in state aid to the university system. This year, the Legislature cut about $60 million from higher ed for this budget year and next.

“There will be a lot of debate about higher education,” Brownback said. “Funding will be a major topic.

“I’ve been supporting stable funding for higher education. I think we ought to do that and then target our investment in key areas of growth – aviation, animal agriculture and medical sciences, certainly in the Kansas City area. Those I think will probably be key issues that will come up, but it’s probably going to mostly pivot on what the Supreme Court rules.”

Brownback and Wagle made their remarks at an annual presentation by the governor to the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

In the past, the state has chosen appeals judges and Supreme Court justices through a “merit system” in which a panel of lawyers elected by the state bar and laypeople appointed by the governor picked three nominees. The governor selected from those three finalists.

The Senate favors the “federal model,” in which the governor could appoint anyone he wants, with a confirmation vote by the Senate.

This year, the House and Senate passed a law to change the selection of appeals court judges to the federal system, which could be done with a simple statute change.

Brownback’s first appellate appointment under the new system went to his own office counsel, Caleb Stegall, who was quickly confirmed by the Senate during a special session in September.

But the selection of Supreme Court justices is spelled out in the state Constitution, and changing that would require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the Legislature, plus a public vote.

The Senate has already passed the proposed amendment, but it stalled in the House.

At one point, technical difficulties led to a moment of political levity during the governor’s speech.

When his PowerPoint presentation crashed in the middle of his talk, Brownback quipped, “This is the Obamacare website,” drawing laughter from the crowd.

As an aide struggled to get the presentation back on track, Brownback took some ribbing from the crowd for the computer’s desktop wallpaper, an idyllic image of a deserted ocean beach.

“What part of Kansas is that?” one of the diners called out.

“It’s the geographic center of the United States,” Brownback deadpanned.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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