The Kansas Supreme Court timed a recent school finance order in an effort to help elect a Democratic governor, the leader of the Kansas Senate suggested Friday.
“Why would the court deliver us this timing? Do you think that maybe they would like to elect a Democrat governor so they can have more Democrat appointees to the Supreme Court? Is that why this timing is all going to fall next year on an election cycle?” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said.
Wagle denounced the October court ruling, which struck down the state’s school funding formula as unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to show how it will respond by April 30. Attorneys for four school districts suing the state for more money contend that $600 million more in funding may be required.
She called the amount “absolutely unaffordable” and unobtainable. A spokeswoman for the Kansas Supreme Court said the court doesn’t comment on pending cases.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, called Wagle’s comments ludicrous.
“I guess I would have expected more from the president of the Senate but she’ll ultimately, if this constitutional crisis comes about, have to take the blame for closing the schools. Because the Supreme Court has pretty much said what we’ve done is not only inadequate, but inequitable,” Hensley said.
Wagle told the Wichita Pachyderm Club it would be immoral for her as a legislator to vote for additional funding for schools or for a tax increase. She said other areas of state government are hurting; she named the foster care system, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and prisons as needing attention.
Hensley noted that Wagle earlier this year had proposed a 2 percent across-the-board cut on state spending. Senators rejected the proposal.
Under the school funding formula that the court struck down, Kansas is spending an additional $485 million on schools over two years starting this fall. Lawmakers also passed an income tax increase projected to generate $1.2 billion in new revenue over the same time.
“We are all being held hostage across the state by four school districts who are suing the state, saying it’s not enough money,” Wagle said.
Her comments drew a rebuke from Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the districts who have sued over funding, including the Wichita school district.
“I think her remarks are absolutely offensive in light of the court’s ruling and the constitutional obligation she has to make certain that Kansas kids are provided an equal opportunity for an adequate education and that obligation is owed to all kids and it’s a constitutional obligation,” Rupe said.
But Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, welcomed Wagle’s remarks.
“It’s great to hear, finally, that the Legislature is going to stand up to this court,” said Trabert, who listened to Wagle’s speech.
Kansas is headed toward a constitutional crisis, Wagle said. One possible response to the court is an amendment to remove a requirement from the Kansas Constitution that the Legislature provide “suitable” provision for school funding, she said.
An amendment would take a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and would have to be approved by voters.
It’s unclear how many lawmakers would follow Wagle into a showdown with the court. Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, said on Twitter there are not enough votes to pass the constitutional amendment Wagle floated.
Legislative leaders voted last week to establish an interim committee to begin work crafting a response to the court’s decision. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, has said the committee may propose a constitutional amendment.
Anger among Republicans toward the court is not new. Some Republican lawmakers backed efforts in 2014 and 2016 to remove justices. The justices can be removed through a statewide vote, but no effort to do that has succeeded.
No justices will be on the ballot in 2018, however. Asked by an audience member at the Pachyderm Club whether not retaining justices was a missed opportunity, Wagle agreed.