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Kansas GOP leaders seek to stop court rulings on education

TOPEKA, Kan. — Two top Republicans issued an ultimatum Tuesday that Kansas legislators act to curb the power of judges before they will allow them to vote on increasing public school funding to satisfy a demand from the state Supreme Court.

The declaration brought action on education funding to a halt after significant progress had been made.

The House had passed a bill, 71-53, that would phase in roughly a $520 million increase in education funding over five years. Meanwhile, a Senate committee on school finance approved a bill that would phase in a $274 million increase over five years. A debate by the full Senate on at least one of the bills was scheduled to be next

But Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, and Majority Leader Jim Denning, of Overland Park, both GOP conservatives, said they won’t schedule any debate until lawmakers put a proposed constitutional amendment dealing with the courts on the ballot for a statewide vote. A House committee is reviewing such a measure, to strip state courts of the power to declare the state’s total spending on public schools insufficient.

Wagle and Denning said the state cannot afford the House’s school funding plan without a tax increase within two years. They questioned whether the Supreme Court would accept the Senate committee’s plan — undercutting GOP lawmakers who pushed it — and said the legal battles forcing lawmakers to consider higher spending must end.

“We have been put in a situation where we just have to stop the train,” Wagle told reporters. “We’ve been pushed into a corner.”

Denning said: “The madness has to stop.”

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the state’s current spending on public schools of more than $4 billion a year still isn’t sufficient under the state constitution, even with increases approved last year. The court says the constitution requires legislators to finance a suitable education for every child.

Kansas has been and out of education funding lawsuits for several decades, and the last one was filed in 2010 by four local school districts. The Supreme Court has issued multiple rulings forcing lawmakers to increase their spending, and GOP conservatives have sought regularly to amend the state constitution, without success. An effort by conservatives to oust four of the seven justices in the 2016 elections also failed.

Both houses must pass a constitutional amendment by two-thirds majorities to put it on the ballot. Republicans have the necessary supermajorities in both chambers, but GOP conservatives and moderates are split over an education funding amendment. Democrats strongly opposed such measures, seeing them as an attack on both the courts and public schools.

Top Democrats said it’s irresponsible for Wagle and Denning to block school funding legislation over a constitutional amendment that’s not likely to pass. The court gave the state until April 30 to report on how lawmakers fixed the problems it has identified with school funding.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the two Republicans were having a “temper tantrum” and acting like “school-yard bullies.”

“That sounds child-like, you know, ‘I’m going to pick up my ball and go home,’“ said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. “You don’t get to do that when you’re under a court order.”

The House Judiciary Committee had a hearing Tuesday on a proposed constitutional amendment and was expected to vote on it Wednesday.

A coalition of business groups is backing the measure. Supporters argued that checking the courts’ power over school funding will protect spending elsewhere in state government and lessen the pressure for tax increases.

And at least a few Republicans voted for the House’s education funding plan primarily because, as conservative GOP Rep. Kyle Hoffman, of Coldwater, said, “We have a coalition willing to look at a constitutional amendment.”

In the House, Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Dighton Republican, shrugged off Senate GOP leaders’ ultimatum.

“We have to work this out,” Hineman said. “We have an April 30 deadline to answer the court, and my expectation is that we will.”

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