Checks and balances crucial

Lawrence Journal-World, Dec. 20

As frustrating and drawn out as school-finance litigation in Kansas has been, stripping courts of their authority over the state's public schools is not a viable solution.

In a lawsuit that is now nearly eight years old, the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the state's method of funding public schools is unfair and that the volume of funding is inadequate. The courts have given the Kansas Legislature until April 30 to submit a plan to fix the issue. The courts could close the state's public schools if the Legislature can't adopt an equitable funding plan that includes what the court deems to be an adequate amount of money.

Estimates are that the plan will need to include as much as $600 million per year more, an amount that many lawmakers fear will cripple the state budget. Lawmakers' options are to increase taxes sharply or make double-digit cuts to other state services.

Some, such as Sen. Dennis Pyle, believe the Legislature should first take aim at a third option: Gut the court's authority.

Pyle, a Republican from Hiawatha, has pre-filed a proposed constitutional amendment that, if approved, would ostensibly hand over exclusive authority for public schools, including the authority to close them, to school boards. The amendment essentially would take away any leverage the court system has in enforcing school finance decisions.

"Parents deserve to have the decisions that impact their children and schools, made by their elected school boards not unelected judges," Pyle said "Decision making is best left to locally elected officials who are closest to the people, not bureaucrats or judges in Topeka."

Pyle's amendment faces an arduous and uphill battle. A two-thirds vote of both houses is required to get the amendment on the ballot and then it must be approved by voters. It's hard to see Pyle's amendment reaching the two-thirds standard in either the House or Senate, and it's unlikely to come before Kansas voters.

Nor should it. The three branches of government serve the public good by providing checks and balances on one another. That's exactly what has transpired in the state Supreme Court's ruling in the school finance case.

The constitutional amendment effort is futile. Pyle and other legislators inclined to try to strip the court of its authority would be wise to focus their time instead on working with others in the state's legislative branch to develop a school finance plan that passes muster with the judicial branch.

This terrorism threat doesn't come in the form of traditional bombs or bullets

The Wichita Eagle, Dec. 19

Most of us don't think much about the system that regularly lands food on our plates.

Sure, we may take note of the cost, if it's something high end like filet mignon, or if a shortage drives up the price of an item we routinely buy.

But the security of our agricultural system doesn't cross our minds. And terrorism? That's something we think about in airports or in crowded places.

Richard Myers, the president of Kansas State University, said last week we should adjust our way of thinking about the security of our agricultural system.

In a sobering report to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, Myers said our nation's food supply is at risk.

"Key components of America's critical infrastructure — agriculture and food — are vulnerable to terrorist attack with bioweapons and un-deliberate infectious disease outbreaks, and I think the U.S. is unprepared to confront those threats," he said.

Myers has the background and experience to see the big picture on the issue. He's president of a university nationally known for its work in agriculture, in a state largely driven by agriculture. He's also a retired four-star general and a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who is familiar with the tactics of groups such as al-Qaida.

He noted, for instance, that al-Qaida has experimented with animal diseases in remote areas of Iraq.

Imagine the devastation and disruption that would be caused if a disease was introduced that wiped out herds of livestock. Imagine what would happen if basic crops such as corn or wheat were destroyed. The effects wouldn't be limited to the United States, because, as Myers noted, "America still feeds the world. ..."

So what are we to do?

Basically the same things we would do to protect ourselves from more traditional threats. In this case, those steps involve research on infectious diseases and bioweapons.

Some of that work is already happening at Kansas State. And the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is being built adjacent to K-State, but won't be operational until 2022 or 2023, Myers said.

Myers said more funding and an array of scientists, veterinarians and doctors are needed even before the National Bio and Ago-Defense Facility opens to protect our country. Sen. Pat Roberts suggested the recommendations be addressed in the next farm bill.

The federal government would be wise to take heed of what Myers has to say, and elected representatives should consider Roberts' suggestion, as well. The safety of our food system and security of our country may depend on it.

Here's how the Legislature can make Kansas a better place to live in 2018

Kansas City Star, Dec. 23

Kansas legislators will gather Jan. 8 in Topeka for one of the most crucial legislative sessions since — well, since 2017.

The truth is Kansas has faced one governmental crisis after another for much of this decade. Much of the blame lies with Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative allies, who pushed through a tax cut in 2012 that remains a model of how not to run a state.

Legislators began repairing the damage in 2017. Over the governor's veto, they raised various taxes in an effort to fund state programs at an appropriate level.

As a result, Kansas is closer to fiscal health than it has been in some time. But there are still needs in various state programs, and there are still holes in the budget.

That means lawmakers will have to tackle tax and spending issues in 2018, no matter how distasteful that sounds. That may mean tax increases.

And there are other policy questions awaiting legislators, too.

Here are ways the Legislature can make Kansas a better place to live in 2018.

? Transparency

In 2017, The Star showed in devastating detail how Kansas remains too secretive — a state where citizens are routinely kept in the dark about the workings of their government.

Substantive fixes are essential.

Some steps are easy and should be taken quickly. The Legislature should immediately begin recording all committee votes and should post those votes online. It should require bills to carry the name of the author — no more anonymous drafts.

It should end the practice of "gut and go," where language is lifted from a minor bill and replaced with major legislation, often without a hearing or notice.

The state's Governmental Ethics Commission needs more resources and teeth. Searching for campaign spending and contributions is particularly difficult and should be improved.

Once those steps are taken, Kansas can move further into the sunlight. Police body camera footage must become open records, freely available to press and public.

Agencies should be prohibited from telling citizens to keep their secrets. Shredding public documents should be banned. Tax credits and other government handouts must be publicized.

Once these steps are taken, lawmakers should offer voters the opportunity to amend the state constitution and add an elected auditor. Kansas needs an ombudsman — someone who looks out for the people.

? School finance

The state's Supreme Court has said Kansas schools are underfunded. Lawmakers must address that decision.

Calls to amend the constitution to change its guarantee of a suitable education or to prohibit judicial intervention in the issue should be rejected. We're confident Kansans would oppose such amendments.

One target for additional school spending — $600 million — is extraordinarily aggressive. It will be extremely difficult to provide that much money to schools without damaging other important programs or dramatically increasing taxes.

School districts must prove they're doing everything they can to keep budgets tight. Kansas should consider consolidating rural districts to save money.

After that, lawmakers should consider a multi-year phase-in to reach full funding for schools. They should also approve an acceptable distribution formula so the state doesn't end up in court each year.

? Privatization

Turning public responsibilities over to private companies has been a hallmark of the Brownback years. Medicaid was privatized. There have been discussions of making a mental health hospital private.

A private company may be asked to build a new prison.

A profit motive can distort public decisions, leading to added costs and inferior service. Legislators should begin an in-depth study of the privatization effort to decide if it should continue.

? The safety net

Kansas has waged a war of humiliation on the poor in the state, a cruelty that should end. Adding new work requirements for food stamps, for example, is unnecessary.

Medicaid should be expanded. And the state sales tax on food, one of the highest such levies in the nation, should be reduced.

Foster care must be improved, with additional money for staff and for providers. Kansas must decide to treat every child with the care and attention they deserve.

? Criminal justice reform

We're increasingly worried about prosecutorial and investigative misconduct in Kansas. Lawmakers should exercise oversight over law enforcement and strengthen the state's ability to intervene locally if needed.

Judges and jurors should see pay increases. And the state must begin to fairly compensate inmates later found innocent of their crimes.

? Other issues

The state has borrowed from taxes meant for road-building, a practice that must end. Additional funds should be found to start restoring the state's transportation network.

College tuition is growing too high, too quickly. Support for higher education should remain a top priority.

Kansas should continue to encourage wind energy and to protect water resources.

Some of these changes will be easy; others, especially hard. But Kansas has started to recover from its long days in the shadows. The 2018 Legislature should continue that journey.