Recent Kansas editorials
The Pittsburg Morning Sun, Jan. 26
Bye, bye Mr. Ambassador
Word that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback had been confirmed as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was good news for Kansas.
Brownback is one of the most disliked governors in the country, and certainly the most unpopular — with both sides of the political divide — Kansas has had in living memory.
Some two years ago we called for his resignation over the state’s ongoing fiscal woes and budget projections that were — charitably — inaccurate.
To be fair, not all the state’s financial problems were Brownback’s fault, he inherited a state with a massive spending problem and far too little revenue to cover it. To be sure, low ag and oil prices did not help. Nor did repeated decisions by the Kansas Supreme Court that millions more in funding must be found for schools, despite a state so broke and debt-ridden that, were it a household, the residents would have declared bankruptcy.
But his “Race-to-Zero” tax cuts, while admirably conceived, were demonstrably a failure.
Moreover, rather than —admit— that failure, he doubled down in his second term, claiming the cuts were working to stimulate economic growth, when clearly they were not.
Again in July, we said Brownback should step down when he was appointed to this position, to give Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer time to acclimate to the job before a new legislative session.
Again, oblivious to the trouble he was causing, Brownback stayed in office.
Finally the Senate confirmed his appointment and Mr. Brownback has tendered his long-needed and long-awaited resignation effective Wednesday. Naturally enough, at a most inconvenient time for Mr. Colyer, coming as it does right in the middle of the legislative session.
So we wish incoming Governor Colyer the best. He is taking over a state desperately in the hole and deeply unhappy with the current administration in Topeka.
We also wish Ambassador Brownback the best in his new job — far, far from Kansas.
The Wichita Eagle, Jan. 26
Jeff Colyer’s seven-month tryout as governor full of challenges
Jeff Colyer waited six months to become Kansas governor. He bided his time and filled in for Gov. Sam Brownback here and there. He was a dutiful lieutenant while Brownback waited (and waited) on his confirmation for a U.S. ambassadorship.
Colyer’s public patience remained strong, even as Brownback’s first nomination stalled and the governor took interest in this month’s State of the State speech and an attempt at a state budget.
Now, with Brownback confirmed and his resignation as governor arriving, Colyer can begin to lead the state - and we’ll get a glimpse of the kind of leader he will be.
Will he be a Brownback clone, sticking to the soon-to-be former governor’s policies? Some of those crashed the state budget and turned many voters toward more moderate legislators in the last election.
Will he take a path so far from Brownback that it’ll be hard to remember he was once Brownback’s right-hand man? Or maybe somewhere in between.
We will begin to see Wednesday.
Colyer has revealed little about how he’ll differ from Brownback, only that he promises energy and an effort to listen to Kansans.
One of his first tests will be deciding how he wants to lead lawmakers in a school finance funding solution. Brownback offered $600 million more for public schools over five years, a proposal that didn’t have a funding source and rankled Republicans who aren’t convinced schools need that much more.
Colyer must decide if he’s on board with added funding - which would almost certainly need a tax increase, barring deep spending cuts. Or he can present his own plan. There is no easy fix.
Other challenges remain. The Colyer-designed KanCare program (the state’s version of Medicaid) was ready for a new version, but too many questions have put it on hold. The prison system is underfunded and understaffed. Most state agencies are trying to make due after funding cuts in recent years.
Colyer’s remaining term is almost a year, but in reality it’s the seven months until the GOP primary in August. Republican voters get that long to grade Colyer’s time in office and decide if he’s worthy of an extension.
We wish Colyer didn’t inherit the added pressure of having six months to lead while running for governor at the same time. That kind of condensed calendar can lead to decisions that are made not in the best interest of Kansans, but of the man running for governor. We trust Colyer recognizes decisions that help his constituents are most likely to earn him the most recognition as the primary approaches.
Whatever his leadership style, Colyer steps into a massive rebuild. Kansas has lacked leadership from the top in a time of extraordinary challenges. He’ll try to change that while his decisions will be scrutinized by other Republicans in the gubernatorial field.
Mr. Colyer, the stage is yours. The spotlight is bright. It’s what you waited for.
The Lawrence Journal-World, Jan. 29
Schools official’s work needs audit
The Kansas State Board of Education erred Friday in its vote supporting popular and respected Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis.
The board should have placed Dennis on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an outside audit into how school transportation aid has been distributed, as legislative leaders requested. That’s the only way to restore legislative and public confidence that Department of Education officials are calculating and distributing school funds properly according to state law.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, sought the action after a Legislative Post Audit report released earlier this month found Dennis had been applying a law repealed in 1973 to calculate the amount of transportation aid each district is entitled to. The law essentially guaranteed that large, densely populated districts would receive a minimum amount of transportation money for each student
The report said the agency had distributed $45 million over the past five years that it was not legally authorized to distribute. But Wagle and Ryckman said the actual figure could be as high as $405 million if calculated all the way back to 1973.
Dennis has been with the Department of Education for 52 years and is Kansas’ top school finance official. He is well respected throughout the education community, and superintendents, school board members and others filled the room for Friday’s board meeting. Former governors Bill Graves, Mike Hayden, John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius sent a letter supporting Dennis to the board on Friday.
Dennis has said that he followed legislative instruction received more than 30 years ago in calculating transportation aid. Supporters said that Dennis’ methodology had never been a secret and many education officials were aware of the minimum funding for large districts.
Instead of suspending Dennis, the board of education voted 9-1 to support his continued employment. It also voted unanimously to direct Education Commissioner Randy Watson to bring recommendations to the board no later than March for procedures to improve transparency and accuracy in the way it distributes funds to the state’s districts.
Wagle rightfully was not satisfied. “This is not about a single staff member, but instead about ensuring that the rule of law is followed,” she said. “If this was done by an employee of a private business, they would have been placed on immediate administrative leave while a thorough investigation was conducted.”
The Legislative Post Audit report raises legitimate and serious questions about how education funds are being distributed. With the Legislature facing a court-ordered deadline to develop an equitable way to deliver school funding and increase the amount of funding by as much as $600 million per year, there is no margin for error. In such an environment, the Board of Education should have welcomed an outside review of Dennis’ work.