Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, is best known as a physician, but like most state legislators these days, education is on his mind.
How on Earth, he pondered to his constituents on Saturday morning at the Santa Fe Depot, 200 S. 10th Street, in an event held by the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce, are legislators going to find $600 million for schools?
That amount is a rough consensus reached among legislators as to what it will take to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court that the state has met its constitutional obligations to students.
"That figure ($600 million) would be such a windfall," said Eplee, who has long served on the Atchison Public Schools USD 409 school board, during his presentation. "We wouldn't know what to do with that kind of funding increase."
Eplee supports a controversial Republican proposal for resolving the situation: Take away the high court's authority, at least in part, on K-12.
The Kansas Constitution mandates for the government to provide a "suitable" level of funding for schools.
According to case law established since 1990 in three combined lawsuits — the most recent of which, Gannon v. Kansas, is in its fifth iteration — that means students must receive "equitable" and "adequate" funding.
In fact, litigation mostly about such concepts has been active in one form or another since 1972.
The court gets to decide what those two words mean, and dozens of school districts are suing the state to argue they mean "more money."
Last fall, the court, led by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, struck down the state's provision as too inadequate. Hence, the push for $600 million more, though the court has not explicitly specified what would be required, preferring instead to let legislators reach a compromise with the plaintiff districts.
Eplee said it's time to put an end to that. If 2/3 of legislators agree, a constitutional amendment altering or removing the court's power to mandate increased school funding will be on the ballot this November, with a majority of voters deciding whether it will pass.
At least some of his constituents agreed that the constitution should be amended at Saturday's event.
"We've got to get the Supreme Court and the lawyers out of the education system," said Peggy Hardin, of Atchison, a retired state corrections officer. "Who is benefiting from all this? I think the lawyers are. How much of that $600 million do they get, huh? They're breaking the state."
Bill Murphy, owner-operator of Quick Stop West at 1701 Main Street, said he believes the state could find enough money to care for its students, but refuses to prioritize and budget appropriately.
"We get creative at the legislative level on how to collect more (taxes), but we don't get creative on how to spend less," he said. "We focus entirely too much on how to increase what's coming in to pay for this. My own personal opinion is that there's plenty of money available to the state, but the question is just 'How is it spent?'"
Gordon Myers, superintendent of Henry County R-1 school district in Missouri, who is married to Susan Myers, superintendent of Atchison Public Schools USD 409, suggested in feedback to Eplee that school funding tends to be oversimplified.
"A school district's budget isn't composed of a conglomeration of sacred cows," he said. "Theoretically, every dollar we spend is going to the classroom. If you heat and cool a classroom, are you spending money on that classroom? Sure, but that doesn't show up on the pie chart."
Cindy Hoverson, of Atchison, a retired librarian, said overall, she trusts Eplee's judgment on the issue.
"I think him being on the school board all these years has really given him a good solid foundation for what he does," she said. "It's really helped ... He has been representing people for a long time and he really has his heart in it."
Other topics of discussion included:
— In response to a question from interim city manager Becky Berger, Eplee said he is supporting a sales tax exemption for dealers of gold and other precious metals in the state after hearing testimony from such businesses in the Atchison area.
"We did some research on this and found that exempting it would cost the state about $7,000," he said, alluding to the figure's relative insignificance. "At first we said, 'No that can't be right.' But it is. That being the case, I'm going to have to vote to allow the exemption."
Eplee added that he occasionally hears appeals to eliminate all tax exemptions and simply lower the overall tax rate to compensate, but he said such proposals always encounter political roadblocks, and would enrage constituencies across the state.
"That sounds like a real great idea in principle, but it turns out, lots of legislators would like to get re-elected," he said.
However, Eplee said, he backs a significant reduction on the sales tax for all groceries. Some states, such as South Carolina, charge no sales tax at all on food, but Kansas charges the same 6.5 percent tax assessed for normal purchases.
Eplee said he would like to see the food rate be reduced to 2 percent or lower, with 5 percent being a realistic goal for now.
"I don't think we can get it under 5 percent for now because of the cost, but I am willing to study the 2 percent proposal."
In a conversation with Murphy, the QuickStop owner, Eplee concurred that in communities like Atchison, any tax on commodities can pressure shoppers to drive into neighboring states, depriving the local economy.
— Eplee denounced what he described as overly conservative attitudes toward medicinal and other non-recreational applications for cannabis.
Even though, Eplee said, genetically modified cannabis plants now produce a product that does not host THC, the psychoactive chemical that causes a cannabis high, Eplee said there is no will in Topeka to allow for such products.
"They just keep saying, 'Only when the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) signs off on it,' and that's the final word," he said. "The prejudice and the bigotry against marijuana has been a real problem."
— Eplee said he supports, in principle, a bill proposed by Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, who represents most of Northeast Kansas, to require Gov. Jeff Colyer to seek Senate confirmation for anyone he appoints as lieutenant governor.
Colyer left that office vacant when he succeeded to the governorship on Jan. 31, following fromer Gov. Sam Brownback's resignation to serve in the Trump administration.
Under current law, anyone Colyer selects will assume office immediately, with no Senate input. Pyle told The Atchison Globe on Thursday that he wants more transparency on the selection process that he said he believes Senate confirmation would promote.
Eplee said he feels that amid all the other issues confronting the state, there won't be much impetus to pass this bill.
"The Senate may take this up now, but I don't think it's going to go anywhere," he said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated the event, held by the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Atchison County Historical Museum. The museum itself didn't sponsor the event, which took place at the Santa Fe Depot, 200 S. 10th Street, where the museum is located.