Kansas City Star, Dec. 25
Many kids — and kids at heart — this week found an unmanned aircraft system under the holiday tree. That's government-speak for a drone. Before they rush outside to take flight, however, they must register with the Federal Aviation Administration or face stiff fines.
The FAA rushed to enact its drone registration rules in time for the holidays, and it shows. The basic idea is sound, but the system could use some tweaks.
The need for registration became evident when some people started flying drones irresponsibly. Operators flew them too close to manned aircraft, around national monuments and near firefighters combating western wildfires.
Catching those people is difficult because a drone can be operated from a good distance away. Even if it crashes and is recovered, law enforcement usually doesn't have much to go on.
So like with other potentially dangerous things — well, not guns, obviously, but things like cars — the government now requires people to register.
The FAA registration, which launched on Monday, applies to people flying drones that weigh 0.55 to 55 pounds. Owners must provide their name, physical address and email address. They'll pay $5 for the privilege, and in return, they will receive a registration number that they must put on their drones.
Drone technology has evolved quickly, and the ease of consumer access took most by surprise. The FAA scrambled to catch up, enacting rules in just a few months. With a million drones expected to be bought this holiday season, the need for speed was clear. Yet, hurried federal policies rarely turn out perfect.
For example, the expert committee was stacked with regulators and business interests. Noticeably missing was anyone to advocate for civil liberties. A skeptical perspective might have convinced regulators to lighten up on registering kids — anyone 13 years old or older is subject to the rules — or to include rules prohibiting people from invading their neighbor's privacy by filming their backyard.
There's also plenty of concern among drone owners that the registry will be publicly searchable. Anyone can check a registration number to find the name and address of a registrant, though not the email address.
Such is the price of accountability. Whenever the government jumps into this sort of record-keeping, transparency is essential as a bulwark against abuse. But we note again that teens must register, so the home addresses of kids will become public.
A simple amendment to address some of those concerns would be to require that parents or guardians register for their kids. The FAA also should reconsider its $5 fee, which serves as a disincentive to what amounts to voluntary registration.
Officials might also want to clarify the lines between federal and local jurisdiction in the sky. Already some states and localities are adopting drone rules. In Ashland, Mo., for example, city officials have imposed rules, including a seemingly arbitrary height limit. Under federal rules, drones may fly no higher than 400 feet. In Ashland, the cap is 130 feet . because that's about how tall the city's water tower is. The last thing America needs is a patchwork of conflicting drone rules.
The FAA's registration system is workable but should not be considered done.
Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 26
Leaders in the Kansas Legislature are talking about cutting short the 90-session starting in January, perhaps capping debate at 65 days. The move appears to be a flimsy gesture to appease for the record-long session in 2015 resulting in a big tax hike or a sincere effort to avoid serious consideration in 2016 of tax reform and Medicaid expansion.
We have a suggestion for anyone convinced the House and Senate doesn't have enough work to justify a full session. Assignment: Take all steps necessary to research, develop and implement — including allocation of money — a plan addressing major problems at the state-operated mental health hospitals in Osawatomie and Larned.
Issues related to hiring of unqualified administrators, inadequate treatment and housing of patients, astonishing lack of safety for employees, budget restraints that lead to forced overtime and the obscene lack of hospital bed space have festered for years.
Lawmakers in both political parties have responded with indifference to challenges at these hospitals serving adults with severe psychiatric disorders. The status quo looks more and more like an immense pile of negligence.
For the benefit of anyone who missed recent news stories, the federal government moved to halt Medicare payments for patients at Osawatomie State Hospital.
The horror show at Osawatomie, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, included assigning a violent patient to share a room with a wheelchair-bound woman. This led to daily attacks on patients and staff. A male patient with a record of criminal sodomy was placed in a hospital wing housing females. He responded by displaying "inappropriate sexual behaviors," CMS said.
Sordid details of the October rape of a hospital technician by a patient emerged via CMS. The assailant, eventually restrained by two patients, was to have been checked every 15 minutes by staff. That didn't happen, inspectors said, but logs were falsified to cover lapses.
Last year, CMS threatened to suspend federal payments unless the state authorized renovations to the hospital.
Similar challenges exist at Larned State Hospital, which operates units full of sex offenders.
Medicare pays one-fourth of the Osawatomie hospital's annual budget. The silver lining in loss of funding may be that Kansas officials finally engage in a remedy — even if it sidetracks the quest for a short, sweet legislative session.
Unwillingness of Kansas' government to properly operate state hospitals for the mentally ill is a tragedy. No more excuses. Do what is right and be quick about it.
Wichita Eagle, Dec. 28
So state lawmakers have nothing but respect for the separation of powers, they now say, and never meant to try to bully the state judiciary into submission by threatening to defund and shutter it.
Such pleas of innocence are hard to believe, because legislators crafted and passed laws in both 2014 and 2015 making court funding statewide contingent on their meddling judicial oversight reforms holding up in court.
Predictably, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled last week that one of those changes was unconstitutional - the one taking the job of selecting chief district judges away from the Supreme Court and turning it over to the local judges themselves. Legislative supporters of that and other reforms argued they were modest moves favoring "local control," and not in conflict with the Kansas Constitution's language saying "the Supreme Court shall have general administrative authority over all courts in this state."
But the high court upheld the lower court win for Kingman-based Chief District Judge Larry Solomon and struck down the law as a violation of the constitution and the separation-of-powers doctrine.
Last week's decision, which is being watched nationally as a test of judicial independence, would have immediately eliminated all judicial funding statewide if not for a judge's earlier ruling in a separate case that put the trigger on hold until March.
Taken at their word now, legislators appear ready to address and avert the judicial funding crisis as soon as the 2016 session convenes. Thank goodness for that - though Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, ominously suggested to the Lawrence Journal-World that total court funding may change.
"The provision was put in the bill specifically because there were historic increases in judicial branch funding the last few years.... Having that (local) say was an integral part of the entire budget package, which was passed as a package and so linked as a package," King said. "Now that some of that has been called into question, we have the opportunity to go back and re-evaluate that funding, but no one wants to abolish it entirely."
Some conservatives hailed a concurring opinion by Justice Caleb Stegall, Gov. Sam Brownback's former lawyer and only appointee to the high court, that advocated a stricter "sequestering of the three great governmental powers" - a sentiment observers linked to the Supreme Court's pending decision on whether the constitution obligates the state to spend more on K-12 schools.
In any case, King and his legislative colleagues should do their duty now to provide the co-equal judicial branch of state government with the resources it needs to serve Kansans and justice.
Hutchinson News, Dec. 25
Build the Grain Belt Express!
That should be the new rallying cry for members of Congress from Kansas and the message from Kansas lawmakers to their counterparts over in neighboring Missouri.
Most everyone has heard of the Keystone Pipeline. But the Grain Belt Express is an energy transportation project that is far more important to the U.S. and especially to Kansas. It's a proposed 780-mile-long electricity transmission line that would move power from the wind farms of Kansas to eastern U.S. markets.
And much like the Keystone has run into opposition in Nebraska where some landowners don't like the idea of an oil pipeline being built under their land, many Missourians aren't happy about the electrical line that would bisect their state. Missouri regulators so far have blocked construction of the project.
All along, the development of wind energy in Kansas has been held back more so by access to transmission lines than by land to build wind farms. And the same goes for the development of renewable energy as a nation. We've got a power grid that wasn't designed to move energy across the country.
Renewable energy — wind, solar, hydroelectric — can only be produced where we have the resources to do so, including wind in Kansas. It's much like oil. It has to be transported from the source to market. A key difference, however, is that electricity can't be stored and transported by rail or highway. We've got to beef up our electricity grid.
That some landowners in Missouri don't want to give up easements for the Grain Belt Express is understandable. But it ultimately won't be their choice if transmission of power is deemed to be in the greater public interest of the nation.
Kansas lawmakers didn't seem too concerned with landowner opposition when they gave full latitude to builders of an earlier phase of the Keystone Pipeline to use eminent domain to build wherever they wanted across our state. Heck, they even gave nearly $50 million in income tax credits and a 100-percent, 10-year tax exemption for the pipeline to take crude to market from the oil sands of Canada. Six Kansas counties - Washington, Clay, Dickinson, Marion, Butler and Cowley - lost about $8.5 million a year in the deal.
Kansas leaders should hope Missouri lawmakers will be so generous to the Grain Belt Express.
Meanwhile, Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas should start to make some serious noise. After all, they went on ad nauseam about the Keystone XL. Now comes a project that has a direct Kansas benefit. They should hammer the Obama administration even more vociferously for approval of the Grain Belt Express.
Keystone enthusiasts, by the way, can take comfort knowing that the federal bureaucracy is grinding just as slowly for this domestic energy transportation project as it has for the Keystone XL.