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Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 13

Tackle budget problems:

To suggest that Gov. Sam Brownback and legislators must find a way to balance the state's budget for the current fiscal year would be redundant.

They have no choice. The Kansas Constitution demands balanced state budgets. Deficit spending is not allowed.

How Brownback and legislators will reach the balancing point for a budget that, as of this writing, is projected to have a $279 million gap between revenues and expenditures is unknown, however. What is certain is that the governor and legislators share responsibility for the state's current financial condition and share responsibility for getting us out of it with as little harm as possible.

Many critics point to Brownback's proposal in 2012 to rewrite the state's income tax code by reducing the number of brackets and lowering the rates in the remaining personal income tax brackets. His proposal also included elimination of taxes on nonwage income for certain types of businesses. Compliant legislators ran with the idea, but the bill they passed and sent to the governor for his signature didn't include most of the offsets, Brownback calls them "pay fors," that would have reduced the financial impact of the tax cuts on the state budget.

In his initial proposal, Brownback recommended the elimination of more than 20 tax deductions and credits, including the earned income tax credit and deductions for interest on home mortgages and charitable contributions. Legislators declined to do away with those deductions, and most of the others Brownback wanted eliminated, but did eliminate tax credits for working Kansans who care for people with disabilities, children or spouses.

That wasn't enough, and the state faces a $279 million gap in the current year's budget and a project deficit of $435 million in the budget for the following fiscal year. (Legislation adopted previously includes further reductions in the tax rates.)

Brownback has recommended some steps to alleviate the revenue/spending gap in the current budget, including the transfer of funds among different accounts, reducing the state's contributions to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and instructing department heads to reduce spending, but his authority is limited. Much of the problem can't be addressed without new legislation.

Elected officials from both political parties have criticized the proposal to reduce the KPERS contribution. That's fine, but legislators must accept their share of the responsibility for the state's financial problem and step forward and propose their own remedies — and quickly.


The Lawrence Journal-World, Dec. 13

Open judicial appointment process:

Gov. Sam Brownback said last week that he's working to fill a vacancy on the Kansas Court of Appeals and plans to announce his choice well ahead of the February deadline set by state law.

Hopefully, the governor will choose to follow a process for that appointment that is far more transparent than the process he followed when appointing his former chief counsel, Caleb Stegall, to the court in 2013.

Stegall's appointment was the first one made under a new law that eliminated the Kansas Judicial Nominating Commission's role in selecting Court of Appeals judges. Those appointments now are made by the governor and confirmed by the Kansas Senate, without any input from the nominating group.

The new process was touted as more democratic because appointees must be approved by elected legislators, but, at least as it was conducted for Stegall, the process leading up to a court appointment is far less transparent than it was under the previous system.

The nominating commission advertised a deadline for nominations and subsequently released the names of everyone whose names were being considered for a vacant seat. When commission members selected the three nominees who would be forwarded to the governor, those names were made public so Kansas residents would know who was being considered. The commission still uses that process for Kansas Supreme Court nominees.

The "process" followed by Brownback in his only Court of Appeals appointment since the new law took effect was considerably less transparent. The governor took applications for the position but released no information about whom had applied or whom he was considering for the post. The first announcement from the governor's office was the news that he had selected Stegall. The announcement declared Stegall as extremely qualified but offered no information about other nominees, meaning that Kansans had no opportunity to assess his qualifications against any other candidates for the job.

Brownback's recent election campaign made a big issue of the governor's responsibility for appointing judges to state courts, and it's likely Brownback will push to also eliminate the Judicial Nominating Commission's role in Supreme Court appointments.

For that reason, Kansans should be particularly interested in exactly how the governor goes about evaluating candidates and making these appointments. To that end, the governor should be willing to share the names of nominees and make his process as transparent as it possibly can be.


The Kansas City Star, Dec. 12

Yoder helps undo taxpayer protection:

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Overland Park played a regrettable role in the raucous government-funding exercise that cleared the House Thursday.

Tucked into the $1.1 trillion spending bill is a provision sponsored by Yoder to undo an essential protection of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law to regulate Wall Street.

The regulation says banks cannot rely on protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation when they trade their riskiest assets. Big banks have attempted to get rid of that taxpayer protection since the law was passed.

Rolling back the measure proved difficult to achieve through the normal legislative process. So lobbyists approached friendly members of Congress about attaching it to a larger bill, according to Politico. They found a champion in Yoder, even though some members warned that slipping deregulatory measures into spending bills had helped spawn abuses that created the Wall Street meltdown.

Yoder's amendment passed out of a House subcommittee in June, and lobbyists convinced House members to insert it into the massive spending bill.

As The New York Times reports, most of the language of the amendment carried by Yoder was written in the early stages of the rollback effort by lobbyists for Citigroup.

Yoder's office said in a statement Friday the amendment is backed by regional banks and farmers to "reduce their exposure to changes in the market."

That may be partly correct. But the big push comes from the mega banks, which want assurance that taxpayers will again cover their losses if they overreach.

Yoder shouldn't be out front in the effort to aid that nefarious goal. The Senate must kill his provision before passing its version of a spending bill.


The Wichita Eagle, Dec. 11

Highway robbery:

Given the state's financial problems, it's not surprising that Gov. Sam Brownback wants to transfer $96 million from the highway fund to help cover this year's budget shortfall. It's also all but certain that more highway funds will be raided next fiscal year.

But the state can't keep siphoning money from the highway fund without consequence. It's not a magic piggy bank.

The highway fund transfer is part of $280 million in allotment cuts that Brownback announced Tuesday. Those cuts also included a $7.8 million reduction to the Kansas Department of Transportation's operating budget.

Diverting money from the highway fund is not new. Former Govs. Bill Graves, Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson did it, and Brownback has done it each year he has been governor. In the past 14 years, withdrawals from the "Bank of KDOT," as lawmakers cynically refer to it, have totaled more than $1 billion.

But the amount of the transfers has increased in recent years. Under Brownback, withdrawals from KDOT were $50 million annually for two years, then increased to $200 million last fiscal year. Before the allotment cuts, the state was already transferring $263 million from its highway fund to other uses this fiscal year.

Unlike in the past, when the transfers were in response to national economic downturns, the recent transfers are linked to the state's income tax reductions. In other words, the state is using the highway fund to finance its tax cuts.

When former Transportation Secretary Deb Miller resigned in 2011, she warned that continuing to raid the highway fund would jeopardize transportation projects across the state.

"It is just not possible to take more from this program and then go back and credibly say to the public we're still going to do what was promised," she said.

But that's what the current transportation secretary, Mike King, has been doing. He said last week that $1.2 billion in highway projects set to begin in 2015 and 2016, including an expansion of the interchange of I-235 and Kellogg in Wichita, will proceed as planned though he didn't promise anything beyond 2016.

Meanwhile, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, suggested that the state pull the highway plan "back to a point of preservation." The Kansas Policy Institute, a free-market think tank linked to Koch Industries, proposed that the state divert more than $1 billion in funding from the highway plan over the next 4 1/2 years.

Kansas has good roads, thanks to its past investments. And given the bad choice of cutting back on the current highway plan or making deeper funding cuts to social services or possibly schools, most Kansans likely would opt for the former.

Still, Brownback and lawmakers need to stop treating the highway fund like it's free money.

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