TOPEKA — Two of the Kansas Legislature’s top Democrats are urging their colleagues to force Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to call a special session on education funding.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka and House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs of Kansas City said Monday that lawmakers need to boost aid to poor school districts to keep all public schools from being shut down.
They were joined by Democratic Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita.
Hensley and Burroughs brought a petition and letter they drafted to the Governor’s office on Monday.
“You know, if people are intent on signing the petition to show their support for a special session, than I think getting it done before Friday is reasonable,” Hensley said about the June 10th deadline.
“I’m checking with the Revisor of Statues Office to see if people can do this by electronic signature so, that way, they literally would not have to turn their petition in to Topeka,” Hensley said. “Maybe they can do it via email.”
And that timing is crucial because if two-thirds of state lawmakers sign the petition, there is a grace period allowed for all legislators to get back to the statehouse.
According to Hensley, 10 days was thrown around, but “(that’s) not an iron clad rule or law.”
All of this is an effort to correct the state’s latest school funding formula.
The state Supreme Court late last month rejected school funding changes made by lawmakers earlier this year and said schools won’t be able to reopen after June 30 unless legislators approve additional fixes before then.
The decision by the state’s highest court was as surrounded by tumult as the formula itself. At the time, Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick called the decision “disgraceful” and accused the justices of “holding children hostage.”
Brownback said the court was participating in “political brinksmanship” with it’s decision.
“We shouldn’t be playing politics with the future of our children,” Hensley said Monday. “The court has done its job. Its told us that our system of finance is unconstitutional now it’s our turn to do our job.”
Legislators adjourned their annual session last week which is why the Democrats are calling for a special session.
During a press scrum Monday morning, Burroughs pointed to a meeting Republican leaders had with Brownback on sine die.
“That meeting broke down, they had a meltdown – if it were – and we ended up, instead of debating school finance, we ended up debating school bathrooms,” Hensley said.
According to the Senate leader, that was a waste of taxpayer money and lawmaker time.
“Literally the business day after the opinion was issued, leadership and governor were meeting to formulate a response to court orders,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King when asked about that meeting. “We’ve been aggressively perusing this, we haven’t been wasting time. Those meetings on sine die were part of the process.”
Burroughs told press this petition was meant to be a bipartisan action but Hensley clarified saying “We are hoping this will be a bipartisan effort in terms of getting signatures from Republicans. We’ll have all the Democrats, obviously, sign the petition, but it remains to be seen how many Republicans we’ll have.”
King confirmed he had not been contacted before the petition was announced and delivered. And with signatures on the petition due at the end of the week, will Senate leadership sign it?
“I plan on moving to have a special session. I’ve been working with the governor to call a special session,” King said. “”I would hope his decision would come in the next couple of days.”
However, King said he and the governor have not spoken since the petition was delivered.
“He’s been thoroughly examining this,” King said about Brownback’s process since the ruling. “We’ve been working with the Attorney General and our counsel on analyzing the opinion and I’m very confident that we will respond to the courts order.”
The two party leaders have differing opinions about the actuality schools will close on July 1.
“It would be unprecedented for Kansas and, no, I don’t believe it will happen,” Hensley said.
King, on the other hand, says this is not the first time the supreme court has threatened to close schools.
“Unfortunately I think the court is making it a possibility,” he said.
Brownback spokesperson Eileen Hawley said “A petition signed by one member of the House will have no effect on the Governor’s plans to stop the Kansas Supreme Court from closing our schools.”
In a secondary release, Hawley said, “The Governor will continue working with legislative leadership to determine the best course of action for stopping the kansas supreme court from closing our schools.”
Legislators can force Brownback to call a special session if two-thirds of them sign individual petitions demanding one.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.