The Manhattan Mercury, May 2
State budget will balance, but opportunity lost:
Kansans have little reason to feel good about the closing days of the 2016 legislative session.
Yes, lawmakers passed a budget that will be balanced, but they did it largely by letting Gov. Sam Brownback do what he's been doing. What he's been doing is shuffling highway money around, resulting in delays in highway projects; postponing large payments to the state pension fund and cutting funding where he deems it wisest.
Lawmakers' misgivings with that approach were apparent in the closeness of the votes in the two chambers. The House vote was 63-59, and in the Senate, where a procedural move was necessary to allow leaders to change some Republican minds, the vote was 22-18.
Among the results will be a cut of another $4 million to Kansas State University — its "share" of $37 million in cuts to higher education. Additional cuts to social services will exceed $50 million, as the state's most vulnerable absorb a disproportionate share of the burden.
And though cuts to public school funding had been recommended, public schools were held harmless for the moment, if only because the Legislature awaits separate Kansas Supreme Court rulings on the equitability and adequacy of state funding.
The weekend was not one of the Legislature's finer moments, but such moments are elusive when the challenge is addressing shortfalls in this fiscal year and next fiscal year of some $290 million.
That left lawmakers few options. The best opportunity they had to at least improve the longer-term outlook was to repeal the income tax exemptions granted in 2012 to more than 300,000 limited liability corporations and certain other business arrangements.
Repeal would not have balanced this year's budget, but the $250 million that repeal was expected to generate could at the very least have set the state on a course in which it could pay its bills on time and without gimmicks and could commit appropriate funding to vital programs and services.
The inability to muster majorities for such a move means little will change. Part of the problem is that any tax increase — even repeal of a recent tax cut — is a hard sell in an election year, which speaks volumes about legislative priorities. Another factor was simply that too many conservative legislators cling to hope that the income tax exemptions, part of a larger income tax overhaul, will still lead to the prosperity the governor has promised.
That would seem astonishing now, given the almost monthly revenue disappointments and routine lowering of projections. Those stem largely from the Legislature's choking off a key revenue stream, although the governor continues to argue otherwise.
The next opportunity for a change of financial direction comes in the primary elections Aug. 2. Perhaps Kansas voters can make their disappointment in their lawmakers clear.
The Wichita Eagle, April 28
Does DCF discriminate against same-sex couples?
So there will be no official audit of whether the Kansas Department for Children and Families discriminates against or bullies same-sex couples in foster care and adoption matters. And gay and lesbian Kansans have another measure of where their rights and concerns rank among GOP priorities at the Statehouse, which is nowhere.
The lawmakers who prevailed Tuesday in the party-line decision of the Legislative Post Audit Committee had their reasons, citing limited resources, higher priorities and DCF assurances. To its credit, the panel approved badly needed audits of the long waits to determine Medicaid eligibility and the effect of the loss of Medicare funding at Osawatomie State Hospital. A broader audit of DCF and foster care, with an emphasis on safety and privatization, was approved in January.
But the December request by Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, for an audit specific to the same-sex issue was more than well-founded, including by a Johnson County judge's 2013 finding that DCF "conducted a witch hunt'" against a lesbian foster couple and by the signed statements of 17 attorneys and three social workers raising more questions. Ward also pointed to "the six or seven anecdotal cases that were presented through media of situations that didn't make sense," expressing worries that DCF decisions related to same-sex couples are putting children at risk.
Some legislators have been persuaded by DCF officials that because the agency has no policies or training materials related to same-sex couples serving as foster or adoptive parents, that proves there is no discrimination going on.
But when there's so much smoke, lawmakers should bother to look for a fire. Maybe next year.
The Hutchinson News, April 29
Spring's wild weather cause for precautions:
(Last) Tuesday's gloom-and-doom weather forecast called for strong winds, heavy rain, up to softball-sized hail and the high threat of tornadoes, the worst of all weather woes. Of course, it didn't happen here. But it could have. Just ask our Wichita neighbors to the east.
But the build-up of a week of forecasts predicting mass destruction did something that needed to be done. It was a wake-up call for all Kansans about the precariousness that Mother Nature can unfold. Yes, it's springtime in Kansas, and you'd better be alert and prepared for what disasters might come our way.
Most people were ready. Most people took precautions. That included a rarity: Most schools in the potential path of hazardous weather postponed outdoor sporting events track meets, golf tournaments, baseball and softball games. It was the right thing to do.
No athletic events are worth putting student-athletes in harm's way of potentially dangerous storms. Same goes for transporting them to and from the events. Some schools even let out early for the same reasons.
As it turned out, the weather forecasters missed the mark, which isn't out of the ordinary. It's better that they err on the cautious side rather than downplay the potential of Mother Nature's fury. All we have to do is think of the 25th anniversary of the Andale tornado now being observed or, more recently, Greensburg. Both were tragically marked by death and destruction.
We've learned to take the Armageddon forecasts with a grain of salt. We know from experience that forecasters are often wrong. But at least we're aware of the possibilities. If they're right and precautions weren't taken, it's trouble. It's only prudent to take the forecasts for face value and plan accordingly.
It's not the end of the world when they're wrong. But it might feel like it if they're right.
Lawrence Journal-World, April 28
Wichita's bus link to nearby Amtrak routes a reminder of Lawrence's good fortune:
There's more than one way to provide Amtrak passenger service to the state's largest city.
Rail advocates have been trying for some time to get a new rail route that would run through Wichita and serve as a link between the Southwest Chief, which runs through Newton, and the Heartland Flyer, which stops in Oklahoma City. "That's still a good idea," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said recently, "but why wait?"
Magliari's comment came during a news conference last week announcing a new Amtrak route between Newton and Oklahoma City. However, no trains are involved. The route is for touring-style buses, operated by a Wichita-based charter company, to carry rail passengers between the Southwest Chief and the Heartland Flyer.
It may not be exactly what Wichita travelers were hoping for, but it formally restores passenger rail service to Wichita for the first time in 37 years, They'll just start their journey on an Amtrak bus instead of an Amtrak train.
As people who ride the train out of Lawrence know, Amtrak travel across Kansas is an early morning affair. The Amtrak connector bus will leave Wichita at 1:35 a.m. each day to catch the Southwest Chief at 2:45 a.m. in Newton. It will head south from Newton at 4 a.m. and leave Wichita at 5 a.m. so passengers can catch the Heartland Flyer in Oklahoma City at 8:25 a.m.
The mayor of Wichita lauded the new transportation option for his city. The welcome that Wichita is giving to even this makeshift Amtrak service is a good reminder of how fortunate Lawrence is to be on a regular Amtrak route. The bus connection through Wichita also provides additional travel options for Lawrence riders.
With airline travel becoming more expensive and less enjoyable, trains may become an even more popular option for the future, which supports the need to invest in both maintenance and expansion of Amtrak tracks and service. Completing a rail line between Newton and Oklahoma City would be a good addition for Amtrak, but the bus line is a creative stopgap measure.