All eyes in Topeka await a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court, the local delegation told residents at an open forum Saturday.
A forthcoming Supreme Court decision on state education funding has created uncertainty in the halls of the capital during the first part of the legislative session, local legislators, all Republicans, said Saturday at an open forum in Dodge City.
The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to announce a ruling that could require lawmakers to include a minimum amount of funding per student in the next budget. Some lawmakers have said such a ruling would undermine the power of the legislative branch.
"I have a real problem with the courts telling us what we have to put in the budget," Rep. Ron Ryckman, Sr., said.
"That's what we're elected to do, to put together a budget," Sen. Garrett Love said.
As education spending comprises more than half the state expenditures, all budget work in the Legislature will rely on the ruling, the legislators said.
A ruling in favor of the parents and school districts that initiated the suit would help eastern Kansas cities at the detriment of the west, Love said, in that the discussion has focused on per-student funding and ignores the mathematical weights that allow proportionally more dollars per student for rural areas.
"It will be the issue of the session, whenever it comes," Love said.
The group of legislators was less willing, however, to say how they or the Legislature would respond to several "what if" scenarios.
"It's hard to answer a hypothetical," Ryckman said, but if the ruling sets a minimum legal funding, "there could be a constitutional crisis with that."
Some Republican lawmakers in Topeka have said they would refuse to follow a court order that deprives the Legislature of its budgetary authority.
Rep. John Ewy said he mostly hopes the decision arrives soon so the Legislature can continue its time-consuming work of preparing the state budget.
"If the court tells us we have to do something, I guess we have to do it," he said.
Love was critical of the 2005 Montoy v. Kansas ruling that forced the Legislature to appropriate more money to education, and critical of opposition voices that have laid the problem at the feet of the Republican legislative and executive branches.
The legislators also spoke about a federal proposal to add the Lesser Prairie Chicken to a federal protected wildlife list. The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the bird as "threatened," which would create mitigation requirements for new development, including farmland, housing, wind generation and electricity transmission.
If the decision is made, Gov. Sam Brownback has said the state would sue the federal government.
Rep. Bud Estes said he would rather the federal government leave the issue to the state.
"That's not to say we are against conservation of the bird," Estes said, but would prefer an option with a lower economic impact. "Preserve the bird and preserve the habitat without wrecking everything else."
Love said adding the bird to the protected registry would create a "southwest Kansas development tax," and instead supports a conservation regimen created by the state wildlife department.
At the meeting, the legislators spoke about their experiences in the capital and encouraged constituents to let them know their thoughts on issues and pending legislation.
Other issues mentioned by the legislators included:
Love celebrated an early legislative victory in the tentative agreement with the Brownback administration over the Oil and Gas Depletion Trust Fund. That deal would pay oil and gas producing counties the $7.5 million they claim they are owed. The proposal will needs to survive the budgeting process to pass.
Love also said he is supporting a law that would increase the penalties for scams against senior citizens, including Medicare fraud. "So far it has a lot of bipartisan support and should go through," Love said.
Estes said he thinks a bill that would prevent municipalities from adding fluoride to the water supply should remain a local decision.
As the most junior member of the local delegation, now at the start of his first full session (he was in office during a special session last year), Estes said he has been focused on developing relationships with other Legislators, especially those in the east.
Some had never been further west than Wichita, he said, and "It's a little scary when those folks are passing legislation that affects us."