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Recent Kansas editorials

May 15, 2018

The Topeka Capital-Journal, May 13

Invest in state workers not privatization

With the Legislature not even out of session one full week, the Colyer administration unveiled its plan to lay off more than 50 information technology employees in order to accommodate a transition to a $50-million, 10-year no-bid contract with Canada’s CGI Co. for the purpose of developing and operating a new tax management computer system. The layoffs aren’t immediate. The technical services deal with CGI indicates at least some of the state’s employees will work side-by-side with CGI consultants between now and their dismissal in August.

This could be why Department of Revenue Secretary Sam Williams said morale in the IT Department “sucks right now.” It is hard to get excited about coming to work to train someone to take your job knowing you’ll soon be unemployed.

There are a lot of reasons to be concerned with this plan beyond the obvious questions about the security of our tax information, the logic behind a $50 million, no-bid contract, and the loss of more than 50 information technology employees.

CGI is not subject to open records requests. It doesn’t have a legal obligation like the state’s revenue department to share information. It isn’t accountable to taxpayers in the same way as the Department of Revenue. Every move to privatize government services takes the public one step further from accountability of its tax dollars.

History should make all of us nervous about this transition. Remember the KEES system that was supposed to streamline Medicaid applications and create a better system? It was plagued with operating problems and cost overruns and only after six years of trying to address the issues is it now fully implemented. Not only did it not produce the $300 million dollars in savings used to justify the transition, but it cost the state millions more to develop than was planned.

Then there’s the KanLicense program which a 2017 legislative audit found to be in “caution” status, meaning the “project does not meet several state laws, policies or guidelines, has deviations or unrealistic milestones in scope, schedule, cost, or quality, or has weak or insufficient mitigation plans for known issues which could result in project failure.”

At the time of the KanLicense audit, the contractor had not met several deliverables, but said it would be ready in January. It’s May and it still hasn’t delivered.

And now the administration is telling us we lack the talent in the Kansas Department of Revenue to handle software upgrades and need to embrace this unvetted contract. Yet the announcement comes days after the Legislature adjourns and is not in a position to ask questions or receive information briefings on the merits for this project.

There were no checks and balances, leaving Kansans to hope their most private, privileged information remains secure. What happens if the contract fails and CGI can’t deliver, as we’ve seen happen with other privatization efforts? If it’s difficult to find skilled IT staff today, how much harder will it be after 56 of our staff members have moved on to work in other places?

The hollowing out of the Kansas state workforce through privatization is not a solution to improved government efficiency. We see no evidence that past privatization has resulted in cost savings or improved services. It’s time to invest in our state workforce instead of handing over its work to private companies whose only goal is to deliver a profit to its shareholders.


The Lawrence Journal-World, May 10

Ex-chancellor deal mishandled

The Kansas Board of Regents badly bungled the decision to keep paying former Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little even after she resigned last summer.

Last week, the Lawrence Journal-World reported that Gray-Little has been drawing a salary of $510,041 to serve as a special adviser to the new chancellor, Douglas Girod, after Gray-Little stepped down in June 2017. The salary is the same as Gray-Little was earning as chancellor. Fifty-five percent of Gray-Little’s salary comes from public funds.

The Journal-World learned of the salary only after a list of state employee salaries was made public and Gray-Little was on it.

A Regents spokesman said Regents “directed” President and CEO Blake Flanders to offer the position to Gray-Little during an executive session in the fall of 2016. No public vote was ever taken to hire Gray-Little for the role or establish her salary. Rather, the deal was made via a letter in which the board expressed appreciation and gratitude for Gray-Little’s “unfailing leadership and service” in her eight years as chancellor. In return, the board offered to pay Gray-Little as a “consultant to the new Chancellor,” among other items.

Attorney Max Kautsch, who represents the Kansas Press Association and other media companies, including the Journal-World, on matters of free speech and open government, said he believes Regents violated Kansas open-meetings laws. Matt Keith, a spokesman for the Regents, said the Kansas Open Meetings Act allows organizations to discuss personnel matters in executive session and reach consensus. He said Regents did not take binding action in executive session.

Kautsch disagreed.

“It was fine to discuss whether the former chancellor would receive this money, but pursuant to Kansas Open Meetings Act, no binding action shall be taken by secret ballot,” Kautsch said. “When decisions are made to spend a half-million dollars of taxpayer money, that smacks of a secret ballot and it is a binding action.” (To be clear, only 55 percent of the half million was public money).

Even if Regents didn’t violate KOMA — and we believe they did — the decision remains an embarrassing moment. This was a half-million-dollar parting gift to Gray-Little that the Regents tried to hide from the public. Regents could have been straightforward and honest. After all, other chancellors had received similar compensation packages upon stepping down.

Instead, Regents and Gray-Little intentionally tried to misdirect news about the payments. “I will have no role in running the university,” she said when she resigned. She also said she did not have a retirement compensation package or any contract buyout compensation coming.

It is stunts like the payment to Gray-Little that further strain KU’s already rocky relationship with legislators and make families think twice about the value of paying to send their children to the state’s flagship university.

As Kautsch said of the payment to Gray-Little: “We already know it is unseemly because it took this long for it to become public. It seems like it is a violation of the open meetings act and a violation of the public’s trust.”


The Kansas City Star, May 9

Kansas Medicaid plan is too harsh even for the Trump administration

The Trump administration is all too willing to cut Medicaid benefits and the number of people receiving them.

They’ve signaled this for one thing by allowing states to end retroactive eligibility and to impose work requirements. Their overall message is that states need maximum flexibility because states almost always know best.

But remarkably, Kansas went too far even for this administration. Last week, Kansas became the first and so far only state to be refused a Medicaid waiver under the current president. The federal government ruled that no, Kansas can’t kick people off Medicaid, the health care program for low-income Americans, just because they’ve been on it for three years.

The cruelty of the proposed lifetime cap was obvious from the start.

In Kansas, which has extremely strict income limits on its Medicaid program, most of those on the program are children, pregnant, elderly or disabled. After three years, the elderly and disabled are still going to be elderly or disabled.

So the cap would have touched only those parents of young children who to qualify already make no more than $8,000 a year for a family of three. Of the more than 400,000 Kansans on Medicaid, only about 12,000 fit into that category, as extremely low-income parents who are seen as able to work.

Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that as determined as the administration is to give states flexibility, “We’re also determined to make sure that the Medicaid program remains the safety net for those that need it most. To this end, we have determined we will not approve Kansas’ recent request to place a lifetime limit on Medicaid benefits for some beneficiaries.”

In a speech in Washington this week, Verma explained the decision. “We seek to create a pathway out of poverty,” she said, “but we also understand that people’s circumstances change, and we must ensure that our programs are sustainable and available to them when they need and qualify for them.”

There has been no ruling yet on another request on whether Kansas can add work requirements.

Unlike Kansas, the four states that have been approved to do that all expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

If that work requirement is approved, some parents of young children in Kansans would likely lose their Medicaid coverage.

That’s because if they met the work requirement, they’d make too much to qualify for Medicaid, and if they didn’t meet the work requirement, they’d be kicked off of the rolls automatically.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer said this week that he’s pleased the Trump administration is still mulling the proposal to impose a work requirement on those 12,000 Medicaid recipients who could work. “This important provision will help improve outcomes and ensure that Kansans are empowered to achieved self-sufficiency,” he said in a statement. It would do no such thing, but just the opposite.

But good job, Kansas, for using creativity and gumption to locate the outer limits of how far even this administration will go in penalizing those in poverty. No one can say you didn’t try.

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