The Wichita Eagle, Feb. 20
Legislators love to meddle in education:
If GOP legislators believe in public education as much as they claim or as much as Kansans always have they have a strange way of showing it.
Every idea that comes into a legislator's head, or through the pipeline from some conservative think tank, seems to be finding its way into bill form, if not necessarily to a committee hearing or floor debate. The real worry is that some of these ill-considered proposals will reach the governor's desk, and end up as laws that only make it harder for teachers to teach and children to succeed.
The session has seen bills to ease prosecution of teachers for materials deemed harmful to minors, to massively expand the program for tax credits to subsidize private schools (leaving fewer state dollars for public ed or anything else), to force the state's 286 districts to combine into 132, and to mandate that schools allow air gun clubs and events. Some lawmakers also would like to raid school districts' reserves, and ignore or evade court rulings that the state increase school funding.
On Wednesday the House Education Committee abruptly approved an unvetted bill that would blow up Kansas' Common Core-aligned curriculum standards and seemingly also jeopardize Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate college-prep programs in the state. Some also believe the measure could prohibit the Common Core-aligned SAT and ACT college entrance exams, because it calls for all coursework and exams to be aligned with non-Common Core Kansas standards.
Though some proponents say it poses no threat to AP and IB, the bill's specific mention of both justifies concern. Students might suffer academically and financially, as their AP and IB participation can earn them college credits amounting to a cost- and time-saving head start.
The bill's fiscal note alone ought to spell its end an estimated $9 million to throw out more than six years of work and materials and start over on standards for reading, math, science and other subjects.
Every recent legislative session has seen a failed attempt to repeal Common Core and override the painstaking work of the State Board of Education, the State Department of Education, and local school districts to implement what are known as the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
The latest bill only gained the committee's nod after some moderate Republicans were removed from the panel late last year and replaced with lawmakers friendlier to such ideological claptrap untethered to fiscal or educational reality. The only testimony allowed on the sweeping measure last week came from a Wisconsin professor known for crusading against Common Core. That's no way to write law.
And the session so far is no way for lawmakers to show they desire the input and buy-in of parents, teachers, administrators, local boards and other stakeholders on a new school finance formula.
Lawrence Journal-World, Feb. 22
Eliminating position overseeing state's KanCare Medicaid program makes no sense:
When Kansas turned its Medicaid health care program over to private contractors, proponents emphasized that an inspector general would be hired to make sure the new system was meeting the state's needs.
An inspector general was hired and then another, but the position now has been vacant for more than a year, and, last week, the Kansas Senate decided the state didn't need an inspector general after all and approved a measure that would eliminate the position.
According to news reports, the initial legislation sought to make the job an unclassified position instead of a classified position because officials of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said that would allow them to offer a higher salary and attract more qualified candidates for the job. However, the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee decided to go a different route.
Some members didn't want to make the job unclassified because those workers serve at the pleasure of the governor and could be fired for political reasons. Others simply thought the job wasn't necessary. Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, said she believed the new Kansas Eligibility Enforcement System computer program would alleviate some of the purpose of the inspector general by preventing Medicaid fraud.
What Pilcher-Cook seems to miss is that a primary duty of the inspector general is to keep an eye on the contractors to make sure they are providing acceptable service. Lawrence Memorial Hospital is just one of the Kansas health facilities complaining about difficulties receiving payments from KanCare contractors. People applying to get health insurance through KanCare are waiting for months to be accepted in the program, which recently was reported to have a backlog of about 10,000 applications.
Does this sound like a system that doesn't need any supervision?
In addition, the three KanCare contractors — Amerigroup, Sunflower Health Plan and United Healthcare — reported a combine loss of $52 million in 2014. That's better than the $116 million they lost in 2013, but this system doesn't seem to be working well for contractors either. Will their attempts to increase their profits cause additional problems for KanCare recipients?
In light of the serious questions being raised, it makes no sense that state legislators would conclude that the one position charged with making sure this program is operating efficiently and meeting the needs of KanCare recipients is no longer needed. The Kansas House has not yet considered the plan to abolish the inspector general's position. Hopefully, House members will come up with a strategy to fill this job rather than eliminate it.
Topeka Capital-Journal, Feb. 20
Kansas Senate majority leader's game plan memo says a lot:
A look into the political mechanisms of the Kansas Republican Party, as outlined by Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, was fascinating in some respects.
Some of the jargon Bruce encouraged Republican state senators to use in remarks regarding budget problems was predictable. Yet to see terms written within a memorandum like strategies from a playbook provided keen insight into the leadership of the party's conservative wing.
The advice Bruce distributed as part of a memorandum, which The Topeka Capital-Journal obtained and reported on this past week, touched on both the 2016 legislative session and upcoming re-election campaigns.
Bruce focused on conservative ideals, while conceding that development of a campaign formula beneficial to all 32 Senate Republicans was impractical because of the party split between conservatives and moderates.
Wording that Bruce suggested his Republican colleagues avoid when addressing state budget issues included "bipartisan," ''common sense," ''transparent," and "make the tough decisions."
Apparently, the mere mention of such terminology portrays weakness within the party, and hinders the candidate's obligation to promote the Republican brand. Never mind those terms represent values many Kansans believe lawmakers must adopt to address issues with a commitment that puts people first, not the party.
In promoting conservative platforms that conform to those espoused by Gov. Sam Brownback, the memorandum in effect supports a governor whose approval rating is disturbingly low.
Nonetheless, the memo has its merits. Bruce emphasized methods available not only to erase a projected state deficit of $175 million, but also to identify $2 billion in savings over a five-year period. The constructive elaboration of that plan is worthwhile.
Such cuts, however, require "tough decisions." Why pretend they don't?
Excluding such phrases insults the Kansas electorate. Some would call that common sense.
Promoting the common good, however, isn't part of the playbook Bruce devised, which also includes words and phrases Republicans should express when communicating with potential voters.
While the memo was revealing, it really wasn't altogether surprising.
Politics is about gamesmanship. Gamesmanship often requires deception.
Some Republican senators will buy into the strategies Bruce recommended. Others will adopt part of the script. Others will devise their own approach and talking points.
Does this make for a good majority team in the State Senate?
Voters eventually decide. At least now they know how one key Republican wants the message shaped. Right down to the last word.
The Hutchinson News, Feb. 19
Objections to STAR bonds reveal legislators clueless on tax policy:
So now Kansas legislators are beginning to balk at tax breaks championed by Gov. Sam Brownback. They're way too late to be crashing his party. They should have spoken up four years ago when the governor's biggest tax-cut binge began.
Now that the state is in dire financial straits, suddenly some legislators think Kansas can't afford to be giving up tax revenue. Problem is, they picked the wrong tax incentive program to raise an objection. This one creates jobs and stimulates the economy.
It is the STAR bond program, which allows sales taxes in a designated district to be used to finance a tourism-related development. Hutchinson used STAR bonds for Strataca Underground Salt Museum.
The first and biggest STAR bond project in the state was the development of the Kansas Speedway near Kansas City and the surrounding Legends shopping center and other retail, restaurant and hotel projects. That's been an unquestionable success — so much so that the bonds are being paid off early from the sales-tax revenue.
Brownback now proposes expanding that STAR bond district for more development — reportedly for a massive project to attract the American Royal horse and livestock exhibition along with a new hotel, 5,000-seat hockey arena and children's museum.
House and Senate budget negotiators want legislation that would restrict future STAR bond projects. Their current hold on new projects also almost halted a planned large downtown redevelopment project in Salina until that one apparently was given a pass.
All of this sudden concern about STAR bonds is terribly misguided. At the risk of quoting the governor who doesn't have a good record at all on tax policy, he has it right when it comes to STAR bonds.
"The STAR bond concept was that you're creating new sales tax. The best example of that is the Legends area. There wasn't anything there 15 years ago," Brownback said.
So here's the deal — and the same can be said for property tax abatements, tax-increment financing districts and similar tax incentive tools for economic development: These tax breaks aren't giving away existing tax revenue. No tax revenue would exist were these projects not built — and no jobs and the resulting economic impact .
So you can say "no" to the new STAR bonds and be no better off — worse off, in fact — when the American Royal and the hockey arena and the children's museum and whatever else doesn't get built. It's complaining about giving up something you never had to give up.
One part of this that can be debated legitimately is whether the original STAR bond district in Wyandotte County should remain intact for the new development. Would be nice, of course, to open that stream of sales-tax revenue to the state — about $42 million — once the bonds are retired. But if the state has an opportunity to add to this marvelous development, that seems short-sighted.
Foresight is what is needed in the Legislature. The ability to see the forest through the trees. The time to object to tax breaks was back when the governor gave away the farm to 300,000 businesses and higher-income individuals.
Too often these days we have to wonder about the competency of our legislators — those who couldn't figure out that the broad-stroked income tax cuts in 2012-13 would create no new jobs and do nothing but bankrupt the state. And those who now can't see that a targeted tax incentive program can directly create jobs and stimulate spending and tourism in the state.
Legislators should be smart enough to be a backstop for bad ideas, not just follow the herd off the cliff, and smart enough to spot a good idea when they see it.