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Panel OKs school amendment to Kansas constitution

John Milburn, Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A Senate committee on Tuesday endorsed a proposal to amend the Kansas Constitution to give the Legislature sole authority to determine funding for public schools, thereby cutting out the courts.

The proposal comes after a Shawnee County District Court ruled in January that the state's school finance system was unconstitutional and ordered legislators to increase spending by more than $440 million for the next school year.

Supporters say that while the judicial branch has the authority to decide whether legislative policies are constitutional, courts overstep their boundaries when they require increases in state spending on education.

The voice vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee sends the measure to the full Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 32-8. Some senators objected to the amendment being placed on the August 2014 ballot, saying that's when many families are on vacation and they are the ones most affected by changes in education policy.

"This is about, supposedly, a crucial part of the constitution and state government," said Sen. David Haley, ranking Democrat on the committee from Kansas City. "We want to get the better bang for the buck. I don't know why we wouldn't want to do it."

Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican, said voters had to take responsibility for their own actions and go to the polls. He also suggested that while primary elections see lower voter turnout than general elections, those who do vote are better educated on the issues.

The proposed amendment says definitely that only the Legislature can appropriate money, not the courts nor governor, though the chief executive's signature would still be required for any spending bill to take effect.

In addition, the governor could still veto any spending bill he disagreed with and legislators could still attempt an override.

Twenty-seven of 40 senators and 84 of 125 House members would have to vote for the measure to put the question to voters. Senators approved a similar measure in 2005 by a 30-9 margin, but it failed to gain enough support in the House. Republicans now outnumber Democrats in the House 92-33.

In 2005, like now, legislators were responding to a court ruling that found the school finance formula unconstitutional. In the end, Kansas increased its funding for public education by nearly $1 billion.

However, those increases were eroded by the effects of the Great Recession, which forced the state to reduce education funding and prompting the latest lawsuit.