Senators propose judicial limits

Recommendation calls for banning lawsuits against the education funding formula.
Friday, February 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:34 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Constitution should be amended to prevent courts from examining the constitutionality of the state formula for funding public schools, three Republican senators said Thursday.

The senators, all members of the joint Senate-House committee responsible for recommending how to fix the existing formula for school funding, proposed a resolution calling for the amendment.

Almost half the state’s schools have joined a lawsuit charging that the existing formula is inequitable. The lawsuit is on hold as lawmakers seek a solution to the funding problem. The issue, however, is being debated among multiple legislative committees as time ticks away on the legislative clock.

The amendment would end the lawsuit by yanking from state courts the authority to hear the case. The amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, said the lawsuit amounts to little more than the state suing itself. That, he said, must stop.

“We face the very real possibility that we pass a new formula and the lawsuit doesn’t go away,” Bartle said. “We face the very real possibility that we will have perpetual litigation of the state suing the state, and thus spending scarce taxpayer money to continue lawsuits.”

Senate Democrats, however, were miffed at the proposal, saying it would essentially end judicial review.

“To try to say that the judicial branch of government is not allowed to interpret the constitution is insane,” Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said. “Why don’t they propose a resolution to just dissolve the judiciary?”

Lawmakers from both parties have said the formula must either be changed or sufficiently funded, and Gov. Matt Blunt has promised to address the formula.

Supporters of the amendment said the courts could order the state to increase education funding by an amount so large that taxes must be increased. The Missouri Constitution requires that any tax-levy proposal that increases the percentage of household income taken by state taxes be approved by voters if it first wins majority approval in the House and Senate.

Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who heads the joint committee, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, co-sponsored the measure. Nodler said the courts should never have accepted the lawsuit.

“These are dollars that are not buying textbooks, are not paying teachers, are not building schools, that in fact divert resources from public education in the state of Missouri into the hands of lawyers,” Nodler said. “And at the end of the day, when this process is completed, if a Missouri court acts, we do have three separate branches of government. And if a court does act, the question is what ability does the court have to impose its will on the legislature?”

A Blunt spokesman said the governor had not seen the text of the proposal but that he opposes the idea of courts telling the General Assembly the manner and amount of money it must appropriate.

Bartle said the resolution would have no impact on citizens bringing suits against the state, but would prohibit local districts, which Bartle said are part of state government, from suing the state.

Several members of the joint committee have said the panel cannot carefully consider its recommendations, with only two meetings left before a self-imposed deadline for sending suggestions to the House and Senate.

Graham said the proposed amendment proves Republican leaders are concerned about the prospects of passing a bill to fix the formula.

“I think they don’t know what to do about the issue, and I think they’re just trying to give themselves some PR cover in advance, because I think they’re starting to realize that they can’t pass a formula bill,” he said. “And they know that there’s a judge that will most likely find the formula inadequate, unfair or both.”

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