Counting down to a crisis

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Paul Davis, the Lawrence attorney who ran for governor against incumbent Sam Brownback, is among notable political experts who see a looming constitutional crisis in Kansas.

 

This is because, for all practical reasons, we have lost the legislative branch of state government. The constitution gives us three. The other two are the executive branch, headed by the governor, and the judicial, its system of state courts. All are creatures of the law, embodied in the state constitution.

 

How have we lost the legislative branch? Two examples: – In recent years, Gov. Sam Brownback has advocated\ budgets for local public schools that the courts have repeatedly ruled unconstitutional; the courts have ordered the legislature to comply with more equitable funding. Instead, legislators reinforced without question the governor’s illicit behavior by junking a constitutional school finance formula; in its place is a restrictive mandate that under-funds local education and demands that shortchanged educators come to Topeka and beg the governor for more. The legislature by law is a counterweight to a governor who misbehaves. Instead, ours has gone away.

 

Last year, the legislative branch collapsed under pressure of its own making – a two-year, $800 million state operating deficit, and few serious plans to stem the flow of red ink other than a $300 million increase in select taxes and fees, and robbing state pension funds and various agencies of their savings. At the same time, agency funds were cut, some dramatically. The legislature, weary of it all, quickly authorized the governor to make up to $100 million in additional cuts and then left town. Lawmakers had surrendered budget powers granted to them exclusively by the constitution. Given a legislature that has abdicated its responsibility, we are left with two branches of government.

 

The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule in November on lower court findings that our schools are unconstitutionally under-funded. If the Court rules in favor of schools and against the governor, the governor might well ignore the Court’s ruling. If the legislature then denies the constitutional authority of the Supreme Court by supporting the governor without question, we have a constitutional crisis – a state with a legislative branch in consort with a governor and defying a court order. Given recent actions in Topeka, the scenario is more than likely.

 

This would be a serious public breach of fundamental law, a state no longer funding public schools by constitutional directive, no longer operating under the constitution we adopted. At that point, the federal government likely will be asked to protect the citizens of Kansas from rule by a governor who no longer abides by the constitution and a legislature that backs his dictate. It has happened before – in Little Rock and in Oxford, Mississippi, among others. It can happen again, in Kansas.

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