Kansas lawmakers to spend $400K for help on school funding

Posted at 11:47 AM, Nov 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-08 12:47:48-05

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislative leaders plan to hire two attorneys to help lawmakers draft a new public school funding law and meet a court mandate because top members of the House and Senate haven't agreed on a choice.

The top five Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature agreed Tuesday on a plan to spend a total of $400,000 on hiring the attorneys and a school finance expert. The expert is to report on the cost of meeting the Kansas Supreme Court's requirement in education funding decisions for the state to finance a suitable education for every child.

The plan includes $100,000 each for the House and Senate to hire its own lawyer and $200,000 for the school finance expert's work. The attorney general's office represents the state in an ongoing school funding lawsuit, but legislators have in recent years hired their own attorney to help them — though it has been a single lawyer for both chambers.

The Legislature's two Democrats also were at the leaders' meeting, but they opposed the GOP plan to spend $400,000. They argued that lawmakers could rely on state auditors to do a cost study, for as little as $100,000.

"Four hundred thousand dollars is a waste of money," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled last month against a law enacted earlier this year to phase in a $293 million increase over two years in the state's aid to its 286 public school districts, to make it $4.3 billion annually. The court said the increase wasn't enough to finance a suitable education for every child as the state constitution requires.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four school districts, and Kansas has been in and out of litigation over education funding for several decades. Top Republicans argue that legislators need their own legal assistance to help them build a record to support any legislation they enact.

The plan approved by GOP leaders will allow the Senate to hire former Republican state Sen. Jeff King, who previously served as the chamber's vice president and Judiciary Committee chairman, He advised the entire Legislature earlier this year under a $65,000 contract.

Top Democrats in both chambers said the Supreme Court's latest ruling against the state argued against keeping King. Senate GOP leaders disagreed, saying King's experience and background warranted rehiring him.

King could have been hired to represent the full Legislature again if all three top House Republicans agreed to it. They didn't say Tuesday why they wanted another, yet-unnamed lawyer to represent them.

But House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said legislative leaders didn't want a disagreement with senators to delay lawmakers in getting help and starting work on a new school funding law. The Supreme Court has directed lawmakers to enact one before July.

"The Senate leadership was determined to hire one individual, and time is short," Hineman said. "This was the option available to us to move forward."

Some legislators worried immediately about the possibility for additional conflict. But Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she's not worried because both chambers will have to pass the same legislation for it to become law.