TOPEKA — An effort to keep furloughs from shutting down Kansas courts for several extra weeks in the spring got tangled up Friday in some legislators' frustration with school districts seeking to reopen an education funding lawsuit.
Legislators appear to agree that they should add $5 million to the court system's budget to reduce a funding shortfall and limit the number of days workers are furloughed. Without the extra money, the courts could close up to 24 extra days between March and mid-June.
But some conservative Republicans argue that the state can't afford to provide the extra dollars without taking the money from another part of the state budget. And they're targeting aid to public schools.
At least a few GOP conservatives want the court's money to come out of the aid to the 74 school districts asking the Kansas Supreme Court to reopen a 1999 lawsuit against the state.
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Supreme Court rulings in that case in 2005 and 2006 forced legislators to dramatically increase spending on schools. The districts argue that backsliding last year in the face of the state's budget problems wasn't permissible.
"If they can find the dollars to fund a lawsuit, I don't think they're in as bad a shape as they say they're in," said Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita, who is on the House Appropriations Committee.
The issue could arise next week when the House debates a bill revising parts of the current state budget.
But Newton attorney John Robb, the districts' lead counsel, said an effort to single some of them out isn't constitutional.
"It's a mean-spirited attempt to punish school districts that are attempting to exercise their constitutional rights to receive adequate funding," he said.
Other members of the GOP-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson don't want the court's budget linked to the school finance lawsuit.
"We need to get the courts funded, and we need to do it quickly," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.
Spokesman Ron Keefover said the Supreme Court is staying out of the debate over how to provide the additional funding.
The Supreme Court had estimated that the judicial branch faced an $8 million shortfall in its current budget. It drafted a plan to furlough court employees up to 30 days between Feb. 15 and June 15, a week at a time for all courthouses.
Justice Lawton Nuss told court employees in a recent letter that a hiring freeze in place since 2008 and other measures have produced enough savings that furloughs can be avoided this month.
Nuss said that with the extra $5 million, the court will need only four days of furloughs.
But legislative researchers predicting the state will end its current fiscal year on June 30 with a $39 million deficit — even with the changes in the bill before the House.
"We don't have $5 million sitting around," said Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City.
Public schools last year lost much of the funding increases that resulted from the Supreme Court rulings. Base aid declined from $4,400 per student for the 2008-09 school year to $4,012 for the current school year, a drop of $388, or nearly 9 percent.
"In terms of cutting the education budget any more to finance the judicial branch, I don't think it's a good idea," Parkinson said. "I think that we've cut education enough."