Capitol Update: Sen. Pilcher-Cook expresses skepticism at recommendations of K-12 funding report

Each legislative session, we provide the Shawnee Mission area’s elected officials with the chance to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Nancy Lusk, Rep. Randy Powell and Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook are scheduled to send updates this week. (Rep. Powell did not respond to our invitation to submit a column). Here’s Sen. Pilcher-Cook’s filing:

Mary Pilcher-Cook

Earlier this week, I took part in a lunch with other legislators in which there was a discussion about the primary functions of government.  As conservatives who champion limited government, oftentimes there is a debate about what that exactly means – what is the proper role of the state, and when should it be applied?

This is also a question I have consistently been asked by citizens, at doorsteps, at forums, or in e-mail correspondence.  It goes to the core of what we (legislators) do and the philosophy behind how we do it.

Two primary purposes of government which are often not understood by enough elected officials is to one, protect liberty, and two, promote truth. Without truth there can be no liberty, and without liberty we have tyranny.

At such times, I think of the people – who are the ultimate arbiters of what goes on in the halls of government – and that motivates me to stay strong and remain in the fight.  So, that’s what I will do.

With that in mind, here is a report about the various ways we fought for your liberty this past week in Topeka.

School Finance Study:  Are We Really Surprised?

For weeks, many in Topeka have been waiting on baited breath for a study that legislative leaders commissioned in an attempt to determine the appropriate amount of funding for our schools.  We literally took no meaningful action on education as we waited for this study.  However, without even knowing the outcome, I long have been highly skeptical of such studies.

First of all, each study, depending on the whims of the individual, would have a different result.  For instance, many times they assume the premise that hundreds of millions of new spending produces better outcomes for students, when there is no proof that is the case. Second of all, they represent the shifting of responsibility and research to out of state individuals who have no stake in the process.  While some may see this as a useful, neutral source, I view it as a shifting of responsibility.  Finally, these types of studies are always used by the courts and the left to argue for never-ending increases in funding, but are never used to explore other alternatives to reforming education that would not involve dramatic increases in spending, such as school choice or other innovative ideas.

In this case, an additional factor was the mere commissioning of the study represented a response to the court:

and a de-facto acknowledgement that their recent ruling was correct, when a more proper response would have been to simply vote No on an increase, or to propose remedies that dealt with specific issues related to underperforming students, rather than simply throwing more money at the problem.

In the end, I believe the ultimate study is you, the people.

However, now we are at this point and have the report.  It’s a large document, which you can read yourself by clicking here.  So, what’s in it?

For starters, it contains errors, as the lawyers representing the House and Senate revealed in their presentation to the special committee on Friday.  The most vivid mistakes were in the Appendix listening individual school districts.  A good example is that the Olathe School District, which is large, was only listed as having 302 students, whereas Oberlin, which is small, was listed as having over 29,000.  While it is possible there was a spreadsheet error, there is no guarantee and the lawyers pointed that out.

The most alarming part was that it seemingly called for, in one scenario, $2.1 billion in additional annual spending over what we spend on K-12 education today.  While the attorney for the Senate, Sen. Jeff King, said the report was “agnostic” as to where that new funding would come from (state, federal, or local), that is a staggering amount of money.  Throw in the fact that the Supreme Court has not looked favorably on the Local Option Budget as something to include, it could potentially get worse.

A corrected version is supposed to be available early next week, and Dr. Lori Taylor, who was the lead person in conducting the study, will be in the State Capitol to answer questions on Monday, of which I am sure there will be many.  However, before that even happens, many in the media are already insinuating that this means we must increase taxes.

So, what that means is your tax dollars were used to fund a study to say we need to spend hundreds of millions more of your tax dollars.  And, yes, Republicans voted to commission this study.

Friends, this is why it so hard to get out of this mess.  Rather than having the courage to stand up to the court and stand firm for the rights of the legislature, our leaders acquiesced and handed responsibility over to an out-of-state entity who has now told us how to do our jobs.

As a friend of mine joked, perhaps we should fund a study to determine how much money the state could save by simply not conducting studies telling us to spend your money.

I’ll address this issue more in future newsletters as more information comes to light about the route the legislature is going to take.

Education Inspector General Bill Gets Hearing

Key to our liberty is how our tax dollars are spent and ensuring those tax dollars are being spent according to law.  From earlier newsletters, you may be aware of the controversy when it was discovered via an audit that the Kansas Department of Education had been unlawfully allocating funds to school districts for transportation.

This week, the Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the Education Inspector General bill I introduced, which was crafted to address this concern.  At the hearing, I provided testimony, as did Sen. Ty Masterson. I also want to point out the testimony from Kurt Knutson, a Johnson County resident and founder of Freedom Bank, who happens to also serve on the State Banking Board.  Mr. Knutson has been highly involved in grassroots efforts to support the Blue Valley School District.

Here is the testimony I offered:

Sen. Pilcher Cook Testimony on Education Inspector General

Chairman Baumgardner and committee members, thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of SB 424, a measure that would create the position of Education Inspector General.

This legislation will give Kansas citizens the assurance that their K-12 education tax dollars are being distributed according to state law. As we have recently become aware, a Legislative Post Audit study discovered the Kansas Department of Education misappropriated up to $400 million in funds for education for over 30 to 45 years, revealing that the Kansas Legislature, for far too long, has not had proper accountability and transparency measures in place for over fifty percent of the state budget. This must be corrected to ensure there is integrity in the education funding system.

The education inspector general would be appointed by the state treasurer’s office, responsible for writing checks to distribute state funds, including dollars for education. The person would have the knowledge, skills, abilities and experience to conduct audits or investigations. The complex education finance formula would then have oversight by two individuals – one from the State Board of Education and another from the State Treasurer’s office. An education inspector general, coming from an independent government agency, would instill accountability back into the system.

The bill’s language was copied from the Medicaid Inspector General statute, but instead of the appointment being made by the attorney general’s office, which is mostly concerned with fraud, the appointment would be made by the state treasurer’s office, which is concerned with the state’s finances. The appointment would require confirmation by the State Senate.

The short-term outcome regarding the unlawful allocation of funds remains to be a serious consideration.  But in addition, it is essential this situation not be allowed to happen again.  It is the duty of the Legislature to assure Kansas taxpayers that the billions of dollars they spend for education funds is being spent according to their will established in state law.  This is a needed measure that will insert transparency and accountability into the system.  If our school finance system is to be trusted, it must not be under the purview of only one person.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify for this bill. I strongly urge your support.

——

Following our testimony, the committee discussed the bill and indicated they would further work on the matter next week.  One objection to the bill was whether it was constitutional, and I wanted to address that specifically.

The Kansas Constitution says:

that the legislature shall provide for a state board of education which shall have general supervision of public schools, educational institutions and all the educational interests of the state.

The establishment of the Education Inspector General does not in any way impede that general supervision.

Furthermore, the Kansas Constitution also says :

the legislature shall make suitable provision for finance.

The establishment of the Education Inspector General clearly falls within that directive, as it would be tasked with ensuring the finances the legislature provided are being allocated according to law.

I am hopeful the Senate Education Committee will forward the bill to the floor for a full debate.

First Amendment:  Campus Free Speech Protection Act

One aspect of our society where our liberty is under assault is on our college campuses.

On Wednesday, Senator Ty Masterson carried SB 340, the Campus Free Speech Protection Act.   Free speech Is having limits placed on it on campuses throughout the country. This is happening via a variety of means, such as free speech codes, restricting free speech to tiny “free speech zones”, exorbitant “security” fees, or even uninviting speakers. If that doesn’t work, those opposed to the speech will try to  intimidate the speaker into not coming or even disrupt the speech, rather than simply countering it with speech of their own.

While there is room for reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, what we have seen on college campuses is a threat to free speech, which is at the heart of the First Amendment.

During the debate on Wednesday, a coalition of Democratic and mostly left-wing Republicans spoke in opposition and the bill One of their complaints was that faculty should have the same rights as students, ignoring the fact that faculty are employees of the university, under contract to teach.  While they still certainly have broad free speech rights under the 1st Amendment, their employer (the universities) has the right to ensure their first duty (to teach) is being done in a way reflective of the university’s values and mission.

Ultimately, tfailed narrowly on a 20-20 tie vote. This means the Kansas Senate sent a chilling message to college students across Kansas that their free speech rights will not be enhanced by this legislature.   It is my hope we can reverse course and pass this legislation at a future time.  The best way to counter speech you don’t like is promoting via speech you do like, not by shouting or shutting down those you disagree with.

Second Amendment Rights – HB 2042

Another fundamental liberty contained within our United States Constitution is the right of the people to keep and bear arms – it should not be infringed.  Despite that unambiguous statement, Senate Democrats and some left-wing Republicans attempted to infringe on that right this week via amendments to HB 2042.

HB 2042 is a rather simple bill providing reciprocity on conceal carry rights with other states.  It passed the House with a couple of amendments added that were removed in committee to restore it to its clean form.  However, it also presented the opportunity for Democrats to attempt to amend it.

The ensuing debate lasted four hours, with multiple amendment offered, and my friend and colleague Sen. Ty Masterson did a great job in fending off the attempts to add restrictions on gun rights to the bill. This includinged an attempt to repeal “constitutional carry”, an attempt to repeal “campus carry”, an attempt to raise the age for purchasing a rifle to 21, an attempt to repeal bumps stocks, and an attempt to institute a “red flag” law that did not include due process rights, and which would have been a direct threat to liberty.

Some attempts, such as the “red flag” amendment, were ruled not germane.  Others were defeated in roll call votes – one a 20-20 tie.  In the end, HB 2042 passed cleanly, 25-15.

For a record of how Senators voted on particular amendments, please view the Senate Journal from Thursday.