Judge Seeks to Compel More School Spending

A recent impasse in Kansas simultaneously demonstrated the growing arrogance of judges, the serious philosophical divide between conservative and moderate Republicans, and the ability of conservatives to prevail in intra-party conflicts if they stand their ground.

In defiance of a rogue county court judge, a small band of conservative Kansas lawmakers–buoyed by a public relations campaign from a group called Kansans for Prosperity–stopped an effort to raise taxes in the overwhelmingly Republican legislature earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Supreme Court rebuked the maverick judge, placing a stay on his order to stop all school funding June 30, and agreeing to hear an appeal of his odd ruling.

This rare happy-ending story began in December when Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock came to the remarkable conclusion that an article of the state constitution that requires the legislature to guarantee a public education to all Kansans really means that local communities can never be allowed to raise and spend local money on local schools.

If upheld, Bullock’s ruling would overturn a Kansas law that allows communities to supplement their state education aid by up to 25% with local revenue.

Bullock also mandated higher levels of school funding, setting a minimum permissible level for an education appropriations bill, thus requiring the state legislature to either cut spending elsewhere or raise taxes.

Kansas Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers. But they did not rush to check the power of this judge, or wait for the appeal, or consider cutting other spending. Instead, the Republican leadership pushed for a tax hike.

With freshman state Rep. Bill Kassebaum (R), son of former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker (who is the wife of U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker), leading the charge, the house proposed a series of bills to increase state funding for education beyond the $2.77 billion already appropriated. In January, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius proposed a $304 million spending increase over three years, paid for by increases in sales and income taxes.

The house in April passed a $155 million increase in school funding that was supported by Democrats and moderate Republicans. It hiked both sales and income taxes. The Senate produced a plan to increase school spending by $72 million but not raise taxes. This was financed by accounting tricks and drawing down a budgeted surplus.

On May 8, the final night of the session, the tax-hikers came within striking distance of enacting a law, but 17 staunch House conservatives stood their ground and, by peeling off a few Democrats and moderate Republicans, stopped them.

A furious Bullock then ordered that all state education cease on June 30. On Wednesday, the Kansas Supreme Court a stayed Bullock’s order and agreed to hear an appeal of his December decision.

So, following a tactical victory for conservatives the strategic struggle over who controls the local schools in Kansas will continue. Is it a majority of local voters or a solitary judge?