The lament of Kansas Republicans that Kansas judges have overstepped their bounds — again — is hogwash. If Kansas lawmakers would stop violating the state Constitution, Kansas judges would leave them alone.
In 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court, upholding a Shawnee County District Court judge’s decision, ruled unanimously that the Legislature’s funding of public schools was unconstitutionally inadequate. The justices ordered substantial funding increases along with other changes. Despite resenting what they considered to be judicial interference, lawmakers complied, for a while.
Because of that 2005 ruling, a ruling Friday by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court in a subsequent school funding lawsuit wasn’t a surprise. Still, it was significant.
The Shawnee County judges called the Legislature’s education funding cuts part of “an obvious and continuing pattern of disregard of constitutional funding.” They were correct.
They also were right to order the Legislature to begin rectifying the underfunding by July 1, the start of the 2014 fiscal year. Legislators’ task will be to begin increasing annual funding from the present level of $3,838 per pupil to $4,492. The larger figure is not an arbitrary amount. It stemmed from the 2005 Supreme Court ruling, which led to the Legislature’s approval of $4,492 in per-pupil funding for fiscal year 2010. Unfortunately, largely because of the recession, per-pupil funding never reached that level.
Kansas has recovered fairly well from the recession — well enough that Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature last year pushed through income tax cuts and business tax cuts worth several billion dollars over the next few years.
They did so despite warnings that the tax cuts would choke off revenue the state needs to meet its responsibilities. Indeed, as the 2013 Legislature convenes today, its priorities include addressing a projected shortfall of $267 million attributable to the 2012 tax cuts.
Gov. Brownback said he was disappointed but not surprised at Friday’s ruling. Unfortunately, rather than accept the responsibility — and constitutional duty — to adequately fund schools, he blamed the courts for the tax increases he says will now be necessary. “The courts are drastically increasing the property tax burden on every Kansan. The Kansas Legislature, not the courts, has the power of the purse.”
Had he and his political allies not approved overly generous tax cuts last year, the state would have enough money to fund schools properly. As the judges said in Friday’s ruling: “It appears to us that the only certain result from the tax cut will be a further reduction of existing resources available. While the Legislature has said that educational funding is a priority, the passage of the tax-cut bill suggests otherwise.”
The Kansas courts aren’t the problem; the problem is conservatives’ refusal to meet their constitutional responsibility to adequately fund public schools.