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KS Governor Would Rather Change The State Supreme Court than Fund Schools

Author: David Yee
Created: 03 June, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
4 min read

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback's (R) so-called tea party experiment in supply side economics has thrust the normally quiet politics of solidly-red Kansas into the national spotlight. With the first round of tax cuts nearly bankrupting the state, Brownback and supporters in the legislature have scrambled to make up the short-fall with a blend of more cuts, along with a few increases in taxes.

But all of this has been under the watchful eye of the Kansas Supreme Court. The court handed the Brownback administration several setbacks when it ruled against budget proposals that cut school funding in 2014.

The deep tax cuts created a $700 million shortfall in revenues, but the justices were unsympathetic as they ordered an additional $548 million a year in school spending. The court ruled that self-imposed fiscal dilemmas could not be used as an excuse to underfund mandated school budgets. Kansas law had a specific formula for funding school districts, one that the courts stated was not being followed.

In short, Brownback has few friends in the Kansas judicial system. First elected in 2011, Brownback has only had the opportunity to appoint one justice to the court -- and while that justice has been faithful to Brownback's policies, it hasn't been enough to sway the court's decisions.

Brownback's allies temporarily circumvented some of the court's rulings by changing the funding laws for Kansas schools in 2015. But this new law -- replacing a 23-year-old funding law -- has already been challenged by school districts and is awaiting action in district courts before eventually going before the Kansas Supreme Court.

As a result of the changes, at least 8 different school districts closed their doors early in 2015 because of budget constraints, with many more reducing positions and cutting programs for the 2015-2016 school year.

Brownback and his allies in the legislature have a plan -- if they can't win in the courts, they will just change the judges. At least seven changes to the way Supreme Court justices are chosen and/or retained have been put forth, many of which would require a change in the Kansas Constitution.

Justices are currently appointed by the governor from a list selected by an independent nominating commission. After the first year, the justice is subject to a retention vote in the general election. If retained, the justice then faces a retention vote every six years.

Brownback put forth two suggestions in his State of the State speech of either moving to a federal-type system of governor nomination, senate confirmation, or establishing the direct election of justices. Both of these ideas would require a constitutional amendment.

Other ideas include making judges subject to recall elections, like all other elected positions in Kansas; requiring a two-thirds retention vote to remain in office; expanding the grounds for impeachment to include what is popularly called "legislating from the bench"; lowering the mandatory retirement age for justices to 65-years-old; and possibly splitting the Kansas Supreme Court into two bodies -- one for civil cases and one for criminal.

All of these proposals have one goal in mind: making it much easier to create a conservative court that is sympathetic to the Brownback administration.

But this is also a smoke-and-mirrors ploy, since the Brownback administration doesn't even have the full support of the Republican-dominated state legislature.

With Republicans outnumbering Democrats by 3-to-1 in both the Senate and House, the Kansas Legislature still cannot pass a budget that both fills the shortfall and stays true to the governor's tea party experiment. To many on both sides of the aisle, the budget failures and the new proposals for the Supreme Court are inextricably linked.

Now in the thirteenth day of legislative overtime, costing the state over $40,000 per day, a budget deal is still far from closed. With the fiscal year ending in early July, furloughs of government workers will be imminent if a budget is not reached before the deadline -- non-essential workers will be given furlough notices beginning on June 7.

Kansas' budget experiment is likely to be a key issue in the 2016 presidential election, with both moderate Republicans and Democrats seeing it as a complete failure of supply-side economics. Short of a miraculous economic turnaround, Gov. Brownback has given his political enemies a "perfect" example of the dangers of lowering taxes  and expecting to make up the difference by increased production and commerce.

While Kansas will more than likely vote solidly red in the 2016 election, it will still be one of the most important battleground states of the race -- an ideological battleground where both sides will try to put the best spin possible on Kansas' failed tax-cut experiment to win over voters.