Nixon - One-time offer on school suit

Monday, November 22, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Don't miss this one-time-only opportunity!

When advertisers use such promotions, they spark interest -- and often skepticism.

So understandably, there was a mixture of wariness and willingness after Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon announced that he wants to give Missouri's new Republican governor and legislature the "opportunity" to fix the state's school funding formula.

Nixon has asked a judge to put on hold a lawsuit by scores of public school districts challenging the constitutionality of the school formula. But it's a one-time offer, good only for the legislative session that runs from January to May.

A Cole County judge is to hear arguments on Nixon's request tonight.

"Let's give the new leadership an opportunity to avoid this costly litigation and use the money saved to help fund education," Nixon said in a statement.

Should the judge grant Nixon's request -- over the objection of the suing schools -- the opportunity for Gov.-elect Matt Blunt and the GOP-led legislature would come with political risk.

The school funding formula didn't unravel overnight. It has become inequitable and underfunded over the past several years, while both Democrats and Republicans have been in power.

But should Missouri's all-Republican government fail to adopt a new funding formula in its five-month, lawsuit-free opportunity, the blame for the problem suddenly would appear to fall fully on Republicans.

Fixing the school formula is no easy task. To distribute the state's existing money more equitably would require a Robin Hood approach of taking money from some school districts and giving it to others. That is unlikely.

A more politically palatable solution is to raise the overall amount of money going to K-12 education, giving more money to some districts than to others. But to do so in any significant fashion is tough without a tax increase, and the Republican governor and lawmakers oppose higher taxes.

Republicans say they are aware of political risk inherent in Nixon's offer but are willing to take it.

"The governor-elect supports the attorney general's action and is hopeful that the court will give him and the General Assembly more time to rewrite the foundation formula," said Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson.

'Curious choice of words'

Nixon consulted with Blunt and key legislators before seeking the legal delay. But Nixon's use of the word "opportunity" did trigger a little skepticism. Jackson called it "a curious choice of words."

Nixon denies any political motives, but acknowledges "maximizing the pressure" on the new legislature and governor.

"I know that a lot of people are cynical about politics," Nixon said. "But I don't consider this a risk, I consider it their duty. This is their job. This is what they ran for."

The last time the state faced a school funding lawsuit, the legislature didn't act until a judge declared the formula unconstitutional. That was 1993, and Democrats had just gained control of both the governor's office and the legislature.

Were legislators to wait for a judicial ruling again, it could take an additional year or two. But when the newly elected politicians take office in January, Republicans will enjoy the same post-election-mandate period that existed in 1993, when tasks can be most easily accomplished.

Some school officials remain skeptical that a legal delay would spur a legislative solution. In a court filing Friday, their attorneys suggested the legal proceedings should be delayed for legislative action only if the judge issues a preliminary order that the school funding formula is unconstitutional.

"In a utopian world, I think Mr. Nixon's statement is wonderful," said Tyler Laney, superintendent of the Crane School District and leader of the suing group, the Committee for Educational Equality. "But the history of the General Assembly -- I'm just not so sure there's going to be that intrinsic motivation there for them to do what they need to do."

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, , R-St. Joseph, who headed a special legislative committee that studied changes to the school formula, said he intends to push for a funding overhaul -- or at least the first phase of one -- regardless of whether Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan grants Nixon's request to delay the lawsuit.

But Shields also has a tinge of skepticism about Nixon's offer.

"Do I think that Attorney General Nixon also realizes that by saying it's the legislature's job to fix it, has he set us up politically? Possibly," Shields said. "But we're up to that challenge."

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