Tim Hodge calls for solutions in wake of another legislative loss

Ending months of speculation, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state Legislature is under-funding a school finance formula created in the most recent legislative session.

"I voted against this bill because I thought it was unconstitutional," said Rep. Tim Hodge, (D-North Newton). "This order makes it infinitely more important for the Republican supermajorities to enact the needed legislation to address the court’s decision in this upcoming legislative session.

The high court on Monday rejected the state's arguments that a new law phasing in a $293 million increase in funding over two years was enough to provide a suitable education for every child. The state is projected to spend about $4.3 billion on aid to its 286 school districts during the 2018-19 school year under the new law. The districts argued that the increase approved by lawmakers was at least $600 million short of what was necessary.

The court also rejected the new per-student formula for distributing aid as being unfair to poor districts.

Some Republican legislative leaders were defiant. The Senate's top three GOP leaders issued a joint statement accusing the court of showing "clear disrespect for the legislative process" and jeopardizing "the rest of state government."

"Raising taxes to fund this unrealistic demand is not going to happen," Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita; Vice President Jeff Longbine, of Emporia, and Majority Leader Jim Denning, of Overland Park, said in the statement.

Lawmakers increased income taxes this year to raise $1.2 billion over two years, but much of the new revenue went to close projected budget shortfalls.

In its unsigned opinion, the seven-member court told legislators to enact a new, constitutional school funding law before July 2018, without setting a specific target for how much they must spend. That's a hard deadline — the court ordered more legal arguments for May and said it would rule by June 30 — but in two additional short opinions, three justices together said they would have mandated quicker action.

"Kansas has failed an entire generation of its children," Justice Lee Johnson wrote in one of the separate opinions.

The decision puts the state in a tough spot: Another big school spending increase will force it to either make significant cuts elsewhere in the budget or raise taxes less than a year after the GOP-controlled Legislature rolled back past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

"It is incumbent on soon-to-be Governor (Jeff) Colyer, Speaker (Ron) Rychman and Senate President Wagle to immediately begin working on the necessary legislation to address the court’s order," Hodge said.  "The Court made clear in their decision that they have no patience left of the political gamesmanship of last seven years.  The legislature has one last chance to fix this before the court orders schools closed shortly before next year’s primary election."

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.