The Lawrence Journal-World, Aug. 4

Address prison issues now

Kansas has a prison problem, and that ought to send a scare through state lawmakers.

It has been clear for some time that the state of Kansas has not been adequately staffing its prisons. Perhaps lawmakers have not recognized this. Perhaps ordinary residents of Kansas have not recognized this. But two groups of people, it appears, have recognized it: prison guards and prisoners.

Significant outbursts by prisoners are becoming more common at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. The Associated Press has reported incidents on May 8, June 24 and June 29 in which groups of inmates temporarily refused to return to their cells. In at least one of the incidents, prisoners temporarily gained access to one of the prison's offices.

Employees at the prison have told The Associated Press that the incidents have been significant and that leaders of the state's Department of Corrections are trying to downplay the incidents. The employees spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they fear reprisals from leaders of the Department of Corrections. That is a sad state of affairs.

But the situation could get much worse. The leaders of the Department of Corrections are probably the ones who should most fear reprisals. They ought to be afraid that some day not enough prison guards show up to operate the facilities.

The state is pushing the envelope with how it treats its employees who do the critical work of operating, securing and keeping order at the state's prisons. The starting pay for most corrections officers is $13.95 an hour. That is not great for the type of work they are asked to do. Prison guards have figured that out, as staff vacancy rates are climbing quickly.

At the El Dorado prison, employees have been required to work four 12-hour shifts per week, and at times have had to work a 16-hour shift on the last day of their work weeks. It is no wonder union officials mince no words in describing the situation.

"Basically, correctional officers are just very despondent and tired, and they are just giving up hope," said Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union representing the officers.

State lawmakers are on a break. Maybe they can pull a few shifts. There are idle people in the governor's office, waiting for the moving boxes to be packed. Maybe they can lend a hand.

Laugh now, but if state lawmakers and the governor's office don't begin to address this situation with urgency, they'll have a full-blown crisis on their hands.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug. 1

State is trying to address a backlog of 2,200-plus untested sexual assault kits

Kansas has established a firm reputation as a state in which the detection and punishment of sexual violence is a major priority. From the certification of more than 60 batterer intervention programs (which provide victims with shelter, counseling, legal assistance and many other services) to the recent passage of bills that expand victim access to mental health resources, make it easier to obtain protection orders and increase penalties for certain forms of domestic abuse, Kansas is becoming more proactive on sexual violence every day.

However, like many other states, Kansas has an alarming backlog of untested sexual assault kits — more than 2,200, to be exact. Sexual Assault Kits are collections of DNA evidence from the victims of rape or any other type of sexual violence. After a sexual assault forensic exam is conducted, materials such as blood samples, swabs, combs, etc. are stored in the kit to ensure that as much evidence as possible is preserved. But thousands of these kits remain untested in the U.S., which can delay the process of finding and prosecuting the perpetrators of sexual crimes. This is why the Kansas Bureau of Investigation formed the multidisciplinary 22-member Kansas Sexual Assault Kit Initiative three years ago.

The KBI working group recently released a report detailing its findings and recommendations. It identifies four primary "barriers related to SAK testing."

First, there's a "lack of trauma-informed training" that makes it difficult for investigators to interact with victims and "impacts the viability of a case and its progression within the criminal justice system." Second, a lack of resources has prevented law enforcement agencies from implementing "computerized evidence management systems" and other initiatives that would increase efficiency. Moreover, there isn't enough money to pay for investigators who are trained to handle cases of sexual violence. Third, there are no standardized procedures for how law enforcement agencies should submit, retain and destroy sexual assault kits. Because there aren't any guidelines or requirements, these practices "vary widely across the state." And fourth, there are common misconceptions about sexual assault that can affect the way victims are treated in and out of the criminal justice system.

While some of these issues are more directly related to the backlog itself than others (such as insufficient resources and the lack of consistent standards for the way kits are handled), the report points out that the reasons for the "accumulation of unsubmitted SAKs are multi-faceted, complex and interrelated." We need to understand these reasons so we can reduce the backlog and make sure another one doesn't take its place. As the authors of the report note, "Early efforts from other jurisdictions to test unsubmitted SAKs have resulted in hundreds of rape indictments and the identification of serial offenders." The acceleration of this process should be one of our most pressing objectives.

The existence of such a substantial backlog in Kansas — which includes one kit that was collected in 1989 — is completely unacceptable. We agree that there are far too many "victims who have been woefully underserved by the justice system." However, Kansas deserves credit for being the "first state in the country to complete a statewide inventory with voluntary participation by all law enforcement agencies." This process may be overdue, but it's certainly welcome.

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The Wichita Eagle, July 27

Brownback legacy will be the conviction of his tax cuts

Sam Brownback is Kansas' governor until he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new ambassador of religious freedom.

Still, you can imagine the Kansans already lining up at Cedar Crest to help pack the moving truck.

Many in the state celebrated the news Wednesday evening. America's No. 2 least-favorite governor - 66-percent disapproval rating, according to Morning Consult polling - has been chosen by President Donald Trump for an ambassadorship based in Washington, D.C.

Kansas' gain is America's gain, in an odd way. Brownback is a good fit for the ambassadorship, a position created by Congress in 1998 to protect against religious persecution worldwide. The author of the legislation was former Virginia congressman Frank Wolf, who toured Darfur and Sudan with Brownback during genocide in those countries. Wolf thinks Brownback is a good choice.

As a senator, Brownback was an advocate for Sudanese refugees. That's why it was surprising when he announced his support this year for Trump's travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Sudan.

In Kansas, we'll look at Brownback's 6 1/2 years as governor with decidedly mixed reviews.

He'll be remembered most for a 2012 plan that cut Kansans' tax rates while eliminating taxes on the pass-through business income to limited liability companies. It was a risk because no provisions were offered by the legislature to anticipate revenue losses in the hundreds of millions.

Later that year, before the effects of the tax plan began to show, Brownback worked to get more conservative Republicans elected in primaries over more moderate incumbents. A conservative legislature ensured passage of most of Brownback's policies.

Democrats hoped Brownback was vulnerable during his 2014 re-election campaign. Monthly tax revenue estimates began to miss by millions, sometimes by tens of millions. The Kansas Supreme Court ordered the state to make education funding more equitable. Brownback opposed expanding Medicaid, which would have insured 78,000 more Kansans.

Still, Brownback defeated Democrat Paul Davis by 3.7 percentage points. Brownback's "real live experiment" lived on, until Kansans had enough by the 2016 legislative races. The wave of victories by Democrats and moderate Republicans led to a grueling, fractured 2017 legislative session that ended with an override of Brownback's veto on a repeal of his tax cuts.

That was the shot heard 'round the state, though other parts of the Brownback legacy remain.

The number of Kansans on welfare has dropped during his tenure. Brownback reasons that more people are doing better financially and are able to get off the welfare rolls. Critics point to much harsher restrictions on receiving benefits.

The state went to a privatized Medicaid program, KanCare, under Brownback in 2013. Republicans have lauded the program as innovative; the federal government has found insufficient oversight and other problems as Kansas prepares to reapply for the program's authorization.

The ongoing school finance funding lawsuit is another piece of the Brownback legacy. It didn't start on his watch - major cuts to public education started before his 2010 election as the recession worsened - but his tax cuts meant there was little chance of school funding returning to previous levels. The state Supreme Court is now weighing arguments on whether the 2017 legislature's plan of $487 million in new funding to schools over two years meets the state's constitutional requirement.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will serve the remaining 17 months of Brownback's term. Much of what he does with his one legislative session could be tied to whether he decides to run for governor in 2018.

Brownback has always been a man of his convictions. Sticking with his convictions on his tax-cut policy will be his legacy as governor.

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The Kansas City Star, July 29

How much did Sam Brownback's policies cost Kansas?

Let's begin this missive on an upbeat note: In filling the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, President Donald Trump chose well in picking Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

Even the harshest cynic would be hard-pressed to deny the role that Brownback's religious faith plays in his life. There are few people better-suited to advance the cause of religious freedom around the globe than Brownback.

"Religious freedom is the first freedom," the governor said on Twitter Wednesday. "I am honored to serve such an important cause."

But as Brownback prepares to depart, it's an appropriate time to look back at what the governor's conservative economic policies will cost taxpayers for years to come. Let there be no doubt: Brownback leaves a financial train wreck in his wake.

From the state's drained highway fund to its beleaguered pension system for state workers, Kansas taxpayers now have a lot of fiscal ground to make up. In fact, the total reaches into the billions.

Our advice to taxpayers: Grab a shovel and start digging. Escaping from this fiscal mess is going to take a lot of work — and possibly still more tax increases, as we've pointed out.

"For a small Midwestern state, it's a massive hole," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "And it's going to take years to recover."

At this point, there's no excuse for anybody to be surprised by the aftermath of Brownback's sweeping tax cuts. Media reports far and wide have chronicled the steps the state has taken in recent years to fill in the resulting revenue gaps.

On the day in 2012 when Brownback signed the tax-cut bill, critics were already forecasting fiscal doomsday. The measure slashed state income taxes by roughly $3.7 billion over five years. State financial analysts were predicting budget deficits totaling $2.5 billion in 2018.

Undaunted, Brownback insisted that the improved business climate would benefit all.

"We're going to move this forward and make it work and take care of our fundamental services," Brownback said that day.

But new figures from the Legislative Services Department in Topeka suggest a vastly different story. They show that since Brownback's first year in office, the state has raided various funds or delayed payments to the tune of $3.1 billion.

That includes about $2.5 billion in payments to the state highway fund that were diverted elsewhere. In other words, instead of depositing funds into the highway account to maintain roads, the money was diverted to the general fund and other accounts.

Essentially, Brownback and lawmakers figured that the only way to finance basic services following those massive tax cuts was to dip into piggy banks.

Critics suggest that as highways deteriorate, the state will be hard-pressed to maintain them given all the ongoing highway-fund raids.

Brownback and lawmakers also delayed payments totaling more than $407 million from the employee retirement system, or KPERS. Economic development programs were raided to the tune of $125 million. About $47 million intended for children's programs was diverted.

That's only part of it. The state borrowed $1 billion and deposited it into the retirement account for needed stability. That money will have to be repaid, and so will the $407 million to make pension payments.

Likewise, we'll never know what was lost in terms of progress for kids via those early childhood programs.

Years from now, taxpayers will still be footing the Brownback bill.