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Hutchinson News, June 18

Governor trips over truth explaining state's largest-ever tax increase:

The extra-long legislative session must have gotten to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, because he now seems confused about something as simple as a tax cut and a tax increase.

Brownback said Tuesday that critics "would have you believe" the state is raising taxes but that "that is not accurate."

"You've got to look at the totality of the picture," he told reporters. "When you look at that, it is a tax cut, and you've dealt with your major problems in state government."

The governor can spin it, color it, dress it up and put lipstick on it, but no matter how he tries to disguise it, this is a tax increase. It's a lot of tax increase, and it's not the first one Kansans have endured to finance his pie-in-the-sky idea that eliminating income tax cuts is a magical elixir that soothes all pains.

It's also not going to be the last, because even though the Legislature addressed a $400 million shortfall for this budget year, another $400 million deficit has been brushed aside by raiding other state funds and relying on accounting gimmicks to balance the books.

Here are the facts: Kansas, at 6.5 percent, now has the second-highest state sales tax rate in the country, behind only that blue-state California. The cigarette tax has been increased by 50 cents a pack. The plan the Legislature passed last week raises enough revenue to fill the budget shortfall temporarily. That is a tax increase, plain and simple, and the governor either knows that and is attempting to insult the intelligence of Kansans with his statement, or he's so delirious he can't grasp basic principles of math.

Brownback & Co. want Kansans to remember that he cut income taxes and eliminated taxes on businesses. He wants Kansans to forget that this is the biggest tax increase in the history of the state. And he wants us all to forget that we'll be paying more in taxes, because the foundation of the conservative manifesto that income taxes must be eliminated to spur economic growth that trickles down to us small folk is crumbling before our eyes.

Kansas lawmakers who went along with Brownback need to turn in their anti-tax, limited government cards, because they are now responsible for a tax increase of epic proportions in Kansas. Gone are the days of "tax and spend" liberals; welcome to the new era of the "cut and tax" conservatives complete with the delusional message that a tax increase is really a tax decrease.


Wichita Eagle, June 18

Pot laws need to change:

Though it's a long way from playing out in the courts, the criminal case against Shona Banda is helping make the wider case for change in Kansas' marijuana laws.

At least as the public knows the facts so far, what's happening to the ailing Garden City mother defies reason and dramatically serves the cause of those advocating that medical use of marijuana be decriminalized and penalties for nonviolent drug offenses be relaxed.

Banda has used cannabis oil to treat her Crohn's disease something she wrote about in a book and her 11-year-old son mentioned at school during an anti-drug program in March. Her son's statement prompted investigations by the Department for Children and Families and the Garden City Police Department, as well as a police search of their home and placement of the boy in protective custody.

In the wake of a June 5 arrest warrant, Banda turned herself in to authorities last Monday and appeared in court Tuesday. She faces three felony and two misdemeanor charges for marijuana use. If convicted, her attorney says, Banda could spend a maximum of 30 years in prison.

Authorities had to consider both current state drug laws and the safety of the boy. An April law enforcement release mentioned that "the items taken from the residence were within easy reach of the child." That concern should not discounted.

But many people in and outside of Kansas see Banda as someone in need of compassion, not a jail cell. Her case has inspired more than 143,000 people to sign an online petition calling on DCF and the Finney County district attorney to "keep this family together," and led to online donations of more than $45,000 for her legal defense.

The medicinal benefits of marijuana are increasingly understood and accepted. People across a wide political span are coming to a shared belief that there are better uses for scarce public resources than to prosecute and imprison those who use pot, whether it's to ease or relieve suffering or for recreation.

Not only do opinion polls show this in Kansas, but voters of Wichita decided in April to approve an ordinance making first-time possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a criminal infraction with a $50 fine for those 21 and older. Even the conservative Kansas House voted 81-36 last month to lower penalties for first and second possessions of marijuana, as well as allow limited production and sale of hemp oil to treat seizures.

The Wichita ordinance is on hold amid a challenge from the Kansas attorney general, and the House bill died in the Senate this session. But they stand as more evidence, along with the public outcry over Banda's case, that Kansans' views of marijuana are changing and that laws will need to change as well.


Topeka Capital-Journal, June 22

Kansas Corporation Commission shielding document:

Officials with the Kansas Corporation Commission still struggle with the concept of laws designed to ensure transparency in government.

In 2013, the agency charged with regulating utilities and some industries in Kansas was fined for violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Now, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor has been asked by the Kansas Press Association and The Topeka Capital-Journal to review the KCC's denial of an open records request concerning the details of a cash settlement with a former agency employee.

The outcome of the latest incident obviously is still unknown, but leaders of the KPA and The Capital-Journal feel they are on solid ground and the requested records clearly qualify as public information under the Kansas Open Records Act.

However, a request for a copy of the settlement agreement between the agency and its former employee was denied by the KCC attorney, who said it contained information of a personal nature that would constitute an invasion of privacy and thus was exempt under KORA.

The media partners who asked Taylor to review the KORA request contend KORA makes it clear that contracts between a public corporation and their employees are a matter of public record.

KCC's refusal to produce a copy of the settlement agreement is just the latest example of the agency's stubborn preference to conduct business beyond the view of the public.

In the 2013 case, the agency was fined for its practice of "pink-sheeting," which involved making decisions without the benefit of a vote during a public meeting. An investigation showed a staff attorney would draft a proposed order for the board in a particular case and then take it to each commissioner in turn for approval or moderation. After all commissioners had weighed in on the issue in private, an order was issued without a public vote.

The Shawnee County District Court judge who heard the case determined the "pink-sheeting" was a violation of KOMA and levied a $500 fine, but also found commissioners hadn't intended to break the law.

We disagree with the judge on that last point, and with the KCC attorney now whose interpretation of KORA would shield the settlement agreement from public scrutiny.

It has become apparent that at least some officials with the KCC would prefer to violate Kansas statutes designed to provide transparency than show the public what they are doing.

That is no way to create a trusting relationship between government and the governed.


Lawrence Journal-World, June 22

Meeting academic, vocational needs of students a tall order for Kansas schools:

Some interesting — and, perhaps, unsurprising — ideas were expressed during a local listening session with the state's new commissioner of education.

In preparation for his new job, Randy Watson has participated in a number of listening sessions across the state to gather feedback on K-12 education issues. Some were general sessions and several were organized by local chambers of commerce, which added a specific business perspective to the discussions.

One of those sessions was organized by the Lawrence chamber of commerce last week. During the discussion, some employers expressed the need for schools to do more to help students develop basic job skills such as punctuality and a strong work ethic. This has been a common theme for many years among employers, who simply want to find workers who are responsible and ready to learn.

The employers also cited problem solving, adaptability and communications skills as areas in which many recent grads seem to be lacking. These are skills that will be needed by all high school graduates whether they are seeking jobs right after high school or pursuing additional vocational training or a four-year degree. These young people can expect to change careers several times during their working lives and need the basic skills to manage those changes.

Watson said he has heard similar comments from employers in other parts of the state and said it pointed to a need to place a greater emphasis on vocational-technical education that can lead students to good jobs without a four-year degree. Efforts like the Lawrence school district's new College and Career Center and the new Peaslee Technical Training Center are aimed directly at meeting that need.

However, meeting the need to help students develop jobs skills while also meeting all the academic needs of college-bound students can be a difficult balancing act for public schools. Schools currently are geared to teach things they can measure, like math and reading skills. Teaching youngsters the importance of working hard and showing up on time is harder to measure.

More than ever, schools also are being asked to teach a host of personal and social skills that once were most often learned in a family setting. At the same time, Kansas schools are asked to be academically challenging to the next generation of top researchers and scientists while also meeting the needs of future technicians and craftsmen.

It's a tall order that often doesn't receive the respect and state support that it deserves. It's good that the new education commissioner is listening to people across the state. Hopefully, he will be able to use what he hears to build an even stronger system of K-12 education in Kansas.

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