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State Attorney Asks Kansas Legislature To Act Early On School Finance Bill

Kansas lawmakers are facing an even tighter deadline to pass a new school finance law this session, after an attorney for the state encouraged them to finish their work on the topic less than two months into the coming 2018 legislative session.

Asked Monday by lawmakers what legal staff need to help make the state’s case, Arthur Chalmers urged them to aim for the start of March for handing off a new school finance bill rather than sometime closer to the date the Kansas Supreme Court set for filing the state’s arguments.

“April 30 is too late,” Chalmers told a House-Senate committee on school finance that is meeting outside the regular legislative session. “That’s when the brief is due.”

Once lawmakers pass the bill, he said, it still will need to reach the governor’s desk. Then the state’s legal team will need to collect committee meeting minutes and supplementary materials for the court and write a brief defending the Legislature’s response.

Credit Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Arthur Chalmers, an attorney for the state, told a committee of lawmakers Monday that they should have a school funding bill done by the start of March so attorneys have time to prepare briefs for the Kansas Supreme Court.

“The Legislature needs to make these difficult decisions and work something out, as a practical matter, by about March 1,” Chalmers said.

The Kansas Supreme Court found the state’s school finance formula unconstitutional in October and set an April 30 deadline for the Legislature and governor to address the court’s concerns and submit legal briefs defending their response.

Chalmers said in the last court round, state lawyers didn’t receive all the related minutes and materials from the Legislature until the day before the state’s brief was due.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, chairwoman of the Senate’s budget committee, said she thinks Chalmers’ request to pass a bill by March 1 is “doable” but added: “We’re going to have to get down to some serious work.”

McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, noted that a potential conversation about amending the Kansas Constitution could take up time in the Legislature.

“If that gets some legs, we’ll spend some time on that,” she said, “and we really need to work on addressing a response for the courts.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said it’s important to give the state’s lawyers the time they need to prepare their brief before they appear at the Kansas Supreme Court.

“If that’s what the state’s lawyer is telling us, then that’s a deadline we’ll have to meet,” Hensley said.

The special school finance committee — created to lay groundwork ahead of the 2018 session that starts in January — will meet again Tuesday to hear about the differences between the wording and obligations in the Kansas Constitution and those of other states.

The presentation by legislative staff comes as some lawmakers explore amending the state’s constitution, which currently requires the state to provide “suitable” funding for public schools.

Kansans added the provision in the 1960s by popular vote, and changing it would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature and a regular majority in a public referendum.

Proposals to amend the state constitution in relation to school finance — with the goal of restricting the authority of the judicial branch to weigh in on the matter — have cropped up in at least 15 Kansas legislative sessions since the early 1990s.

See a list of proposed school finance-related amendments since 1993

The topic was especially heated during the 2005 special session, when lawmakers came back to Topeka in June under a court order to add $143 million to schools by July 1 of that year. None of the multiple proposals introduced in 2005 made it out of the Legislature, though two of them passed the Senate.

Other proposals since the early 1990s also failed before reaching a referendum.

On Monday, Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, announced he has filed a proposal to change the constitution in such a way that courts would not be allowed to cut off funding to schools — effectively closing them — as a way of enforcing rulings that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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