By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE — Kansas lawmakers are looking to pull the plug on a vicious loop of public spending, and they could use the threat of jail time to do it.
A pair of bills introduced into the Kansas Senate aims to clamp down on the questionable practice of using of taxpayer dollars to lobby or litigate for, uh, more tax payer dollars.
The jury’s still out on the state’s latest school funding lawsuit, which is headed to the Kansas Supreme Court. But while it could be months before arguments are rehashed, a long list of legal fees have come due, and Kansas lawmakers aren’t the only ones being asked to cough up more cash.
Of the four school districts named in the lawsuit, three of them — Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City — have racked up legal and lobbying fees in excess of $890,000, all paid on the taxpayers’ dime. Kansas City USD 500, the fourth school district involved, paid its own way using private funds, said David Smith, district communications director. He did not return requests from Kansas Watchdog as to how much the district spent thus far.
Enter SB 45 and SB 109. The bills not only would ban the use of public funds to litigate or lobby the state or local government, they also make doing so a Class-C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and a month in jail.
State Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, said the proposals have merit and deserve to be heard.
“When we’re dealing with issues where we’re being challenged with the same dollars we’ve given out to these entities, causing us to delve into it even further, it’s something we need to take a look at,” Pyle said.
State Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said such blatant misuse of taxpayer money is simply unconscionable.
“I just think it’s totally wrong that these school districts, counties and cities, they come up here to the Legislature and push lawsuits. Me, the state of Kansas, we’re funding them,” Ostmeyer said. “Why do you want to bite the hand that feeds you?”
But to hear it from the other side, that hand has been feeding less and less in recent years, and a sharp bite — or in this case, a lawsuit — is the only way to grab attention. And according to Dodge City Superintendent Alan Cunningham, most districts, including his own, have no other funding options.
“We already have a very high incidence of families who qualify for free and reduced lunch,” Cunningham said, describing the low-income demographics of his district. He was skeptical that private fundraising would have worked in this instance. “To ask for an additional burden like that, I don’t know what type of success there would have been.”
But Pyle retorted against the notion that public funding was the only way for Kansas schools to assert their influence.
“If the public at large supports the schools using taxpayer funds to sue the state, I wouldn’t think they’d have any trouble raising funds from the private sector to do that,” Pyle said.
Hutchinson Superintendent Shelly Kiblinger questioned the legality of the proposals, and said they’re simply retaliatory measures to attack districts involved in the lawsuit.
“Obviously, I think anything that would limit access to the courts, I would wonder if that would not have some sort of U.S. constitutional problem because we are constantly using public funds to file various lawsuits,” Kiblinger said.’
She added that considering the conservative makeup of the state legislature, such measures stand a strong chance of passing this year.
Lawmakers are set to debate the first of the two measures, SB 45, at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Ethics, Elections and Local Government committee.
Lynn Rogers, president of the Wichita Board of Education, defended his district’s use of tax dollars while simultaneously calling out what he saw as hypocrisy in the bills.
“We’ve been criticized for a long time on it, but as far as I know the state of Kansas has lobbyists in Washington D.C.,” Rogers said. “What’s interesting is they don’t want us to do it, but it’s OK for them to do it? I think that makes it pretty ironic from that stand point.”