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Recent Kansas Editorials

January 1, 2019

The Iola Register, Dec. 31

With the gavel yet to fall announcing the beginning of the 2019 Kansas legislative session, the mood feels challenging, if not outright ominous.

Faced with a Democratic governor, Republican leaders are setting an obstructionist course on everything from school finance to prison reform, the expansion of Medicaid to anti-discrimination measures.

Reminiscent of the GOP’s no-compromise pledge in 2010 — “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President (Barack) Obama to be a one-term president,” vowed Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — today’s Kansas Republicans appear equally determined to undermine Gov.-elect Laura Kelly’s agenda.

Removing moderate Republicans from leadership posts was the first step.

First to go was Don Hineman, R-Dighton, former House majority leader. Known for his willingness to compromise as well as be a strong voice for the rural parts of the state, Hineman was passed over by his peers for the more conservative, and more urban, Dan Hawkins of Wichita.

With the responsibility to decide what bills come to the House floor, Hawkins’ role as House Speaker could provide a significant hurdle to the expansion of Medicaid. For years, Hawkins has opposed widening the safety net so that another 150,000 Kansans would be eligible for health insurance.

In 2017, moderate Republicans and Democrats came within three votes of overriding Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto to expand Medicaid.

Expanding Medicaid was a key platform of Kelly’s campaign. To have it pushed further down the road would be a great disappointment to the 70 percent of Kansans who favor its expansion.

Republican leaders are also determined to keep school finance as a point of contention.

Is this politics at its ugliest? You bet.

Despite successful legislation last April to get our K-12 schools on solid footing with an additional $522 million to be spread over the next four years, conservative legislators are now saying they should return to “ground zero” in negotiations.

This clique is using the fact that the finance package did not take into account inflation, an estimated $364 million over the next four years, as pointed out by the Kansas Supreme Court, as their excuse to scrap it entirely.

Their other motive in keeping the debate over school finance front and center is to keep the pot boiling against the high court’s direction that Kansas should provide its students an adequate education.

Some legislators, you see, resent the court’s ability to enforce the word “adequate.”

Instead, they want the sole power to decide how much a public education should cost.

To get that power, conservatives are pushing for a constitutional amendment that strips the court’s oversight.

In another fight for control, conservative Republicans intend to keep their thumb on the rights of the LGBTQ community.

It started in 2015, when former Gov. Sam Brownback overturned an ordinance enacted by his Democratic predecessor Kathleen Sebelius that protected LGBTQ state employees from discrimination.

Then earlier this year, legislators approved a measure allowing faith-based adoption agencies to deny gays and same-sex couples, as well as legislation that permits state-licensed child welfare agencies to cite religious beliefs for not placing children in LGBTQ homes.

All this is on top of a 2005 state constitutional amendment that bans marriage for same-sex couples, which was rendered moot, thankfully, when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 approved same-sex marriage.

Today, more than two-thirds of Americans approve same-sex marriage, according to a Gallup poll.

And yet, staunch conservatives remain determined to rob them of their due privileges.

Such a punitive — and yes, backward — attitude is giving moderate Republicans pause.

State Sen. Barbara Bollier, Olathe, said the state’s GOP platform this year to oppose transgender people was “the last straw” to her remaining a Republican and on Dec. 12 she changed her political affiliation to Democrat.

For Rep. Stephanie Clayton, Overland Park, the leadership’s threat to scrap the progress on school funding was enough to make her switch on Dec. 19, saying, “I can’t put my name on a party that is actively seek(ing) to destroy public education.”

That same day, Sen. Dinah Sykes, Lenexa, said the Republican Party’s divisive nature has turned her away.

“Increasingly, I see the Republican Party focusing on issues and approaches that divide our country. I do not agree with that approach,” Sykes said.

Whether conservative Republicans regard these as warnings is yet to be seen. If they don’t, the party will represent a smaller and smaller slice of society.

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The Kansas City Star, Dec. 30

The Kochs and Laura Kelly are right on criminal justice reform. But there’s one problem ′ The Kansas City Star

It’s great that incoming Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and the libertarian lobby funded by Wichita-based Koch Industries agree that the right response to the state’s growing problem of overcrowded prisons isn’t to pave over the prairie and build more and more correctional facilities. Instead, we have to reform the whole system.

As is already happening at the federal level, reforming sentencing laws for low-level and drug offenders is the right move for Kansas, too, particularly amid the current increase in the inmate population.

What’s still being left out of this important conversation, though, is that it will be a lot more difficult to successfully overhaul the prison system without also expanding Medicaid, as the state has so far failed to do under the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s why: If we expand by 140,000 the number of Kansans covered by Medicaid, many more people will have access to drug treatment. When more people are covered, providers can expand capacity. That’s why in states that did take federal dollars to expand Medicaid coverage, many people who could never have gotten treatment for addictions before have gotten help.

In states like Kansas and Missouri that did not expand coverage, it follows that more people are in prison who with proper treatment could instead be working, contributing and taking care of their families.

You can let drug offenders, whose addictions often lead to other crimes, out of jail without making treatment available, of course, but that does make it much more likely that the ex-offender will wind up right back inside. That’s not to say that everyone with a drug or alcohol problem will get treatment, but if we don’t make sure it’s available, we know they won’t.

And failing to make medication-assisted treatment available can only hobble the prospect that sentencing reform will work as it’s supposed to and could.

Kelly said recently that “right now, we are incarcerating many, many people who are non-violent, first-time drug offenders. Those folks no more belong in prison than you or I. What they need, if anything, is treatment.”

That’s true. No ifs about it, though.

A high percentage of all prisoners have an addiction and/or a mental health problem of some kind, yet too many get little to no real treatment either in prison or after they get out, unfortunately.

Part of the whole Obamacare discussion that never got enough attention is that if you wipe out the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for coverage of “essential benefits,” as Republicans have pushed for years to do, then neither drug treatment nor care for a mental illness will typically be covered. Providers will lose staff, and access for addiction services will be decreased dramatically.

Though allowing companies to sell junk insurance that does not cover addiction services is always presented as a cost savings and a win for freedom, a lack of access really only forces us all to pay more, for one thing to house a burgeoning prison population.

Kansas’ male inmate population will exceed capacity this next summer, according to projections from the Department of Corrections, growing about 20 percent in the next decade, and about 30 percent for inmates charged with drug-related crimes, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission.

Obviously, going on as we are isn’t a realistic option. But neither is addressing only half of the problem.

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