Politics & Government

Senate President Susan Wagle: Legislative session should be short, unless school funding decision slows pace

Senate President Susan Wagle speaks before the Pachyderm Club on Friday in Wichita
Senate President Susan Wagle speaks before the Pachyderm Club on Friday in Wichita The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Supreme Court could be the roadblock preventing lawmakers from a quick exit from Topeka in 2016, Senate President Susan Wagle said Friday.

Wagle, R-Wichita, predicted that lawmakers could conclude the upcoming legislative session in 75 days – a pace that would be a sprint compared with 2015’s record 114-day session. She said the one thing that could prevent that is an expected court ruling on school funding, and she warned against judicial activism.

The Kansas Supreme Court will weigh two questions: whether school funding is equitable between districts and whether the state spends an adequate amount overall. Depending on how the court rules, the state could be forced to put more money into schools, which may require budget cuts elsewhere or prompt tax increases.

“It could be by the time that we’re about to adjourn in April that the court could come down with a decision on one of those issues,” Wagle said at the Wichita Pachyderm Club. “Or it could be that the court delays decisions. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can tell you in the Kansas Senate … we are concerned overall about judicial activism.”

“We feel like as senators and as elected officials that we are the ones who are voted by the people of Kansas to determine how much money to spend on schools,” she said to huge applause from the conservative-leaning Pachyderm Club. “And if the people don’t like what we’re doing, they have the right every two or four years to throw us out of office.”

She noted that five of the court’s seven justices would be up for retention in the 2016 election, hinting that voters should remove justices if they hand down a ruling requiring more funding for schools.

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, who attended the speech, also objected to the idea that the court could compel lawmakers to spend.

“I think if the courts tell us to fund a certain amount, a dollar figure, we’re going to tell them to pound sand,” Whitmer said. “But no, I think we can get out of there in 70 days. Seventy-five. That’s reasonable. They did it two years ago.”

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, an attorney, said in a phone call that it’s “not the court’s fault when the Legislature inadequately funds schools.”

“It’s not optional,” Carmichael said. “The law requires the courts to decide those cases.”

He said Wagle and other legislative leaders want to end the session quickly to avoid criticism after the last session and begin campaign fundraising. But he said that those are not valid reasons for the Legislature to abdicate its responsibility on issues like education.

Every state lawmaker is up for re-election in 2016.

Taxes not on the table

Walt Chappell, a former member of the state Board of Education, who attended Wagle’s speech, complained that lawmakers would waste the session in their haste to finish quickly.

“They’re not going to take on any tough decisions we have to face right now,” Chappell said. “How do we become more efficient? That takes some time to put some bills together. … So that means you’re just going to drop back and punt and wait until after the election to start all over?”

Wagle acknowledged that the state faces a budget shortfall for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins in July. She said that Gov. Sam Brownback would be looking to fill that hole through spending cuts. “Taxes will not be on the table,” she said.

Pachyderm Club members asked Wagle if the state would still pursue the “march to zero” on income taxes that was touted by Brownback and others.

Wagle offered a less ambitious goal of a top income tax rate of 3.5 percent – compared with the current top rate of 4.6 percent and the rate of 6.45 percent before tax cuts were enacted in 2012. She said the state could not completely shift its tax burden to sales taxes, because that is already pushing people to shop online rather than in the state’s brick and mortar stores.

Trump and the ‘woman vote’

Wagle also weighed in on the presidential election. She stopped short of endorsing a candidate, but made it clear that she thinks real estate mogul Donald Trump would be a weak candidate with female voters.

“I like Donald Trump. He’s not scripted. He speaks his mind. He’s genuine. I like what he says, but I don’t believe he’s going to win the women vote against Hillary (Clinton),” Wagle said. “I mean he has way too many ‘YouTubes,’ way too many nasty things about what a woman’s face looks like. I mean he’s just said way too many negative things. It’s going to be very hard if Hillary is the nominee to get Donald Trump elected.”

“We need the strongest conservative we can find, who can win the swing states, hold the woman vote against Hillary and come out on top,” she said.

Karen Dornbush, a retired nurse and Pachyderm Club member, agreed with Wagle that Trump would have a difficult time winning support from female voters.

“I will vote Republican, but I do not like a lot about Donald Trump as president,” Dornbush said. “I mean he’s probably an excellent businessman – he says he is – but there’s just something off about him.”

Wagle warned that a candidate without broad appeal could affect Republicans further down the ballot, explaining that several Kansas Senate districts would be vulnerable to Democratic takeover without a strong candidate at the top.

After her speech, she said she believes there are a number of candidates who stand a chance of winning against Clinton. But she said she would support Trump if he becomes the nominee, despite her concerns.

Wagle spoke highly of – though she avoided endorsing – U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has already won the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita.

“I like Marco Rubio,” Wagle said. “Someday I believe he’ll be president. I’m not sure if it will be this run.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3