JEFFERSON CITY - Three Republican members of the joint Senate-House Committee responsible for fixing the formula used to distribute state aid have proposed a constitutional amendment preventing Missouri courts from examining school funding for constitutionality.
Almost half of the state's schools have joined a lawsuit charging the formula is inequitable, and with the clock ticking as the case winds its way through the state courts, Republican leaders in the General Assembly have assigned the issue to a slew of legislative committees.
If passed, the amendment would end the lawsuit because state courts would lose the authority to hear the case.
Its sponsor, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, said the suit was little more than the state suing itself and had to 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 scare taxpayer money to continue lawsuits."
But Senate Democrats said they were miffed at the proposal and that, ultimately, it mounted to ending 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 needs to be changed or sufficiently funded, and Gov. Matt Blunt has promised to address the formula.
Supporters said the courts could order the state to increase education funding by an amount so large that additional taxes must be raised. The Missouri constitution requires proposals to levy taxes that increase the percentage of household income taken through state taxes be approved by the voters. They argued it was conceivable that the courts could prompt a constitutional crisis if the state had to increase taxes to conform to a court order to increase education funding.
Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who heads the joint committee, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, cosponsored the measure. Nodler said he believed the courts should not have accepted the suit.
"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 spokesman for Blunt said the governor had not seen the text of the proposal but was opposed to courts dictating to the General Assembly the manner and amount that must be appropriated.
Bartle said the resolution would have no impact on citizens bringing suit against the state but would merely stop local districts, which Bartle said was part of state government, from suing the state.
Several members of the joint committee have said that with only two meetings left before a self-imposed deadline to send a recommendation to both bodies, the committee could not carefully consider its recommendation.
Graham said the measure was proof that Republican leaders were becoming concerned about the prospects of passing a bill to fix the formula.
"I think they don't know what to do about with 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."
For passage, the resolution must be approved by majority vote in both the House and Senate. It then must be passed by statewide vote, which would likely be on the November 2006 ballot.