Top Kansas legislators weigh in on K-12 financing

11/09/2013 6:53 AM

11/09/2013 6:54 AM

Two key Kansas legislative leaders from Wichita – Susan Wagle and Gene Suellentrop – on Friday echoed what other legislators have been saying for weeks:

An upcoming Kansas Supreme Court decision on financing levels for K-12 public schools later this year might end with a court order to the state to pay a lot more to the schools, perhaps hundreds of millions.

If that happens, many members of the majority Republicans in the Senate and House will:

• be tempted to either defy the court, setting off a constitutional crisis;
• raise taxes significantly, which the leaders said no taxpayer wants;
• or pay the bill and impose drastic budget cuts to the state’s six universities, and other government institutions, most of which have already endured years of significant budget cuts since 2008.

Wagle, the Senate president, and Suellentrop, the House Appropriations Committee vice chairman, both say they hope none of this comes to pass.

If the court rules later this year the same way it did in a similar 2005 case, called “Montoy vs. Kansas,” Wagle said, it would be “a killer decision.

“It would kill all potential funding increases for all government entities,” she said. “If the court does that, it is unaffordable and it is unrealistic.

“So defying them is a possibility.”

Suellentrop said he didn’t want to anyone to regard what he said as a “threat.”

“But if we are ordered to cough up $400 to $500million, we’ve got a significant dilemma. If there is a strong feeling that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction to appropriate money, and if there is a strong feeling that they are not looking at all sides fairly, then we are not apt to go along with them.”

In “Montoy,” the court decided that the state wasn’t fulfilling a constitutionally required mandate to fund education at a reasonable level. The current case, “Gannon vs. Kansas” addresses the same question.

Suellentrop serves as vice chair of House appropriations, a key group in the drive among conservatives last year to cut budgets and taxes.

Suellentrop said the timing of this court case is unfortunate. Legislators, including him, plan to take a second look at the tax cuts they passed last year. Gov. Sam Brownback, and Wagle herself, have spent months urging conservatives to take a second look at the university cuts they passed earlier this year, especially a provision called a “salary cap,” that Wagle said probably damaged operations at WSU, the University of Kansas Medical Center and the extension service based at Kansas State University.

Wagle and Suellentrop said universities like WSU are key to economic development. During a recent visit by legislators to the WSU campus, they said, President John Bardo effectively showcased how engineers at WSU help spur innovation and economic growth.

And business and aviation company leaders showed up to support WSU, explaining how the university spurs development, Wagle said.

Many legislators outside Wichita who were unaware of the role WSU plays as a catalyst for growth are now well aware, Suellentrop said.

Critics of the conservative majority have claimed that it is the conservatives, and not the court, that created this problem. Brownback and legislators decided deep tax cuts would spur growth. Moderates and Democrats said cutting hundreds of millions in tax revenue will create problems for schools and universities and government for years to come.

Suellentrop does not agree with that assessment. But on Friday he was coordinating with House Appropriations Committee chairman Marc Rhoades of Newton, a leader in the tax-cutting effort. He said they both hope to consult other committee members soon about the coming session “and where we are at.” He even said he’s open to the idea of restoring part of what was cut.

But if the court issues a decision similar to Montoy, he agreed with what Wagle said: “That question alone will dominate the next session.”

University leaders, including Bardo and the chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, Fred Logan, both said this week that they hope nothing bad happens. But if there are big cuts, they said they would have plenty to say about what cuts would mean.

Legislators like Rhoades and Suellentrop had criticized WSU and other universities after the session, for their administrative costs, and for raising tuition – which WSU raised 8 percent. But at the October visit, “there were no hostile questions, or even adversarial questions,” Logan said. Legislators who voted to cut WSU’s budget seemed eager to learn what WSU had to say, Bardo said.

“Whatever happens, we will work our way through it,” Bardo said.

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