Politics & Government

Senate President Susan Wagle: 2014 legislative session could be even worse

If you thought this year’s legislative session was long and difficult, just wait for the constitutional crisis over school finance to come next year.

That was the message state Senate President Susan Wagle brought to a Wednesday luncheon meeting of the Wichita Downtown Lions Club.

By the time they return to the Statehouse in January, lawmakers likely will be faced with a Supreme Court order to increase school funding – an order the Legislature may decide to defy, Wagle said.

“I’m quite worried about next year’s session, in that we will most likely be in a constitutional crisis,” Wagle said.

Wagle expressed pride in the tax plan that the Legislature passed, after a grueling slog, about 2 a.m. Sunday, clearing the way for adjournment on the 99th day of what was supposed to be an 80-day session.

But that could be just the warm-up act for next year.

The last time the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to increase funding for schools, the Legislature grudgingly complied in a special session.

In the current case before the court, numerous school districts argue that subsequent budget cuts by the Legislature have denied schools the money that lawmakers agreed to provide in 2005 and that the Legislature is failing to meet its constitutional mandate to provide “suitable” funding for education.

Ken Ciboski, a Wichita State University professor of political science who attended Wagle’s speech, said he doesn’t know that a Kansas Legislature has ever outright defied a court order. He said he’s not sure how it would work out if it comes to that.

“Obviously, if they refused to do it, they’d be in contempt of court,” Ciboski said. “Where they go from there, that’s the issue.”

A special three-judge panel already has ruled that the state is underfunding schools. That decision is on appeal and Wagle said she expects the Supreme Court to uphold it.

Ron Keefover, spokesman for the Supreme Court, said he could not “speculate” on the outcome of the case or its potential aftermath.

Wagle accused the court of failing to consider other state spending priorities as it focuses on school funding.

“The Medicaid people were not there, the hospital people were not there, the roads were not there, the jails were not there,” she said. “They did not have their say in the courtroom on what their needs are for public spending.

“What they (Supreme Court justices) are doing is having a hearing and they’re only listening to lawyers who are saying that education is underfunded. They aren’t listening to the taxpayers who are saying, ‘Well, here’s what I can afford to give you.’ They aren’t listening to the other needs, and therefore I don’t believe they should have the right to appropriate your money or demand that we appropriate in a certain amount to any agency.”

Wagle said one possible solution would be for the Legislature to put an amendment before voters to change the state constitution and place authority over school funding entirely in the hands of the Legislature.

The Senate passed such an amendment this session, but the House didn’t.

“I’m really hopeful that when this ruling comes down that the House will consider our constitutional amendment,” Wagle said. “If they don’t look at the passage of that constitutional amendment, then clearly we’re going to be caught between the court telling us to do one thing and the people of Kansas maybe asking for something else. And then the question is, who has the authority to spend your money? Ultimately, I think it should be your elected legislators.”

Wagle, a Wichita Republican and the first female president of the Senate, spoke to the club three days after the marathon Saturday-into-Sunday session that wrapped up legislative business for the year.

The tax plan, which took weeks of votes and revotes to resolve, walks back some of the tax relief provided by a 2012 tax bill that even its supporters acknowledge went too far. Overall, this year’s bill is projected to raise $777 million more in tax revenue over the next five years than would be raised under current law.

The plan makes permanent part of a temporary emergency sales-tax increase that the Legislature passed in 2010 during a financial crisis brought on by the nationwide recession.

The sales tax was scheduled to revert from the current 6.3 percent to 5.7 percent. The new plan sets it at 6.15 percent going forward.

Wagle said she pushed to extend the sales tax after meeting with Gov. Sam Brownback, who told her that reducing income taxes would create jobs and commerce, which similar cuts in sales or property taxes wouldn’t do.

“He wanted to keep that six-tenths of a cent to help lower income (tax) and move to what we call a consumption tax, which is a Fair Tax model,” Wagle said.

Lawmakers reduced base rates on income taxes but simultaneously phased down the value of most tax deductions, which nearly offsets the tax relief gained from the lower rates.

The bill requires that from 2018 on, growth in government spending will be capped at 2 percent a year, with any additional revenue earmarked for income-tax reduction – the “glide path to zero” Brownback has called for.

“We’re excited about moving to a consumption tax,” Wagle said. “We’re excited about lowering income tax. I believe you’ll find that the plan works.”

Although she hailed the tax plan that did pass, Wagle said she personally preferred an earlier plan approved by the Senate, but rejected by the House, that would have kept the basic sales tax at 6.3 percent but reduced the tax on groceries to 4.95 percent.

“This was the best bill we passed,” she said. “I was praying this would pass in the House.”