Monday, September 22, 2003

Lawsuit challenges Legislature

Economy no excuse for holding funds, suit says

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - The latest lawsuit to accuse the General Assembly of shortchanging public education does not attempt to diminish Kentucky's budget problems. It says simply that they don't matter.

The "financial burden" of adequately funding public schools "does not lessen the General Assembly's constitutional duty," the lawsuit says. "The General Assembly cannot abrogate its constitutional duty merely because the monetary obligations become unexpectedly large or onerous."

The lawsuit, filed last week by a coalition of 164 school districts, will certainly add to the edginess of the 2004 General Assembly. Beyond that, it may have little tangible effect because the suit is not likely to be even close to a trial date by the time legislators convene at the Capitol in January.

Nonetheless, it will hang ominously, like a persistent cloud, over a Legislature facing some unhappy choices: Raise taxes, legalize more forms of gambling or carve more closely to the state government bone following cuts already made - cuts that have resulted in early release of prisoners and some people being forced off Medicaid and out of nursing homes.

The basis of the lawsuit by the coalition known as the Council for Better Education is that the General Assembly has failed to meet a constitutional obligation to provide an "adequate and equitable" education for all the state's school children.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the Kentucky Constitution pins responsibility for the public schools on the legislature and no one else.

That ruling came in the first lawsuit the council ever filed - a suit alleging that the state's method of funding schools was so inequitable that children in a "property poor" district had no possible way of getting the same quality of education as their peers in more affluent districts.

The Supreme Court's ruling led to enactment of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which revamped the public school system and gave it an unprecedented infusion of money.

Nine years ago, 48 percent of the General Fund went to elementary and secondary education, the council argues. That was down to 41.2 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

"I do believe our public schools are underfunded," Rep. Harry Moberly, a Democrat who is chairman of the House appropriations committee, said. "It's clear that their percentage of the budget has gone down, and I believe we need to try to get that percentage up."

But some big demands have been brought to bear on the General Fund, especially for Medicaid and corrections, Moberly said. The General Assembly didn't set out to cut education.

Senate President Dan Kelly, a Republican, said the suit was a bad idea.

"It's going to be increased expense and distraction trying to litigate this issue in the courts when ultimately this has to be resolved in the General Assembly," Kelly said.

Moberly was more sympathetic. "I do not have a problem myself with them filing the lawsuit. I'm interested to see what the court will eventually rule," Moberly said.

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