TOPEKA, Kan. — Two top Republican legislators in Kansas on Wednesday dropped a demand that lawmakers move to curb judges' power before increasing spending on public schools, allowing work to move forward on satisfying a court mandate on education funding.
Senate President Susan Wagle and Majority Leader Jim Denning had said Tuesday that their chamber would not debate school funding until the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution to limit the courts' power to decide education spending issues. An amendment approved by lawmakers would be put to a statewide vote.
The House Judiciary Committee approved such an amendment Wednesday, but Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. said the full House wouldn't debate it this week. Lawmakers are scheduled to start their annual 2½-week spring break on Saturday, and GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer is pushing them to pass a funding increase before leaving the Statehouse.
Colyer on Wednesday publicly endorsed a plan approved by the House to phase in a roughly $520 million increase in education funding over five years. A Senate committee drafted a rival plan to phase in a $274 million increase over five years, and senators are to debate it Thursday.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the state's current education funding of more than $4 billion a year is insufficient to fulfill lawmakers' duty under the state constitution to finance a suitable education for every child. The attorney general has until April 30 — four days after lawmakers return from their spring break — to report on how they responded.
Wagle and Denning blamed Ryckman for the impasse among top GOP leaders, saying they issued their ultimatum to give the House time to pass a proposed constitutional change.
"However, it is unfortunate that he is unwilling to debate the amendment on the House floor, denying Kansans an opportunity to have a say on how their tax dollars are spent," Wagle, from Wichita, and Denning, from Overland Park, said in a joint statement.
GOP leaders strongly disagree over funding increases. Backers of the House plan contend its extra spending can be covered by the annual growth in state tax collections. Wagle and Denning argue the state can't afford it without increasing taxes within two years.
Colyer has told lawmakers they shouldn't raise taxes, and lawmakers in both parties don't want to do that anyway.
Democrats do not believe that either the House plan or the Senate plan would satisfy the Supreme Court.
The Senate GOP leaders' demand for passage of a constitutional amendment first drew the public support from Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is trying to unseat Colyer in the Republican primary in August.
While the House committee approved a proposed amendment, its 12-10 vote showed that supporters will struggle to get the necessary two-thirds majorities in both chambers to submit the measure to voters as planned in November. Reflecting on the ultimatum from Wagle and Denning, Ryckman said passing an amendment requires "time and a lot of deliberation."
"I'm not sure they understood that when they made their statements," said Ryckman, from Olathe.
Colyer and legislators in both parties have worried that missing the April 30 deadline or failing to pass an education funding plan acceptable to the court could shut down schools.
The court's October ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four school districts, and justices previously have threatened to keep the state from distributing its dollars to schools through a finance system they deem unconstitutional — keeping schools closed until the problems are fixed.
The constitutional amendment approved Wednesday by the House committee would strip the courts of the power to declare the state's total education funding inadequate in the future, leaving that issue to the Legislature. The courts still could rule on whether funds are distributed fairly, however.
Republicans have the necessary supermajorities in both chambers to pass an amendment, but conservatives and moderates are split over it. Democrats strongly oppose such measures, seeing them as an attack on the courts and public schools.