- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Hays Daily News, March 16

Parochial education:

Do we truly need any more examples of the Kansas Legislature’s misguided willingness to control what is taught in public classrooms rather than provide suitable funding to educate children?

Apparently, we do. The House Education Committee advanced legislation last week that “would prohibit the board of education of any school district from providing instruction on human sexuality to a student without the written consent of the student’s parent or legal guardian.”

Interesting that sex education gets singled out for special consideration, as opposed to any other subject matter. Unlike mathematics, social studies, history, language arts, science or anything else being taught in the state’s schools, House Bill 2620 would make it a law that “all instructional materials on human sexuality, including teaching plans and syllabi, to parents or legal guardians who request such materials before they decide whether to provide consent.”

This sounds less like an educational concern than a reflection of somebody’s morals. Even more to the point, it strikes us as an attempt to impose a specific value judgment on everybody else - and cleverly disguised as concern for the child’s welfare or the parent’s sensibilities.

A look at who provided testimony to the House committee confirms the hypothesis. The Kansas Association of School Boards, Kansas National Education Association and the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence all stood in opposition to the bill. Supporting the proposed state-sanctioned meddling in local affairs was the American Family Association.

In case you need reminding, AFA bills itself as a “champion of Christian activism.” The formerly named National Federation for Decency believes “that a culture based on biblical truth best serves the well-being of our nation and our families” and “that all people are subject to the authority of God’s Word at all times.”

Such political viewpoints have welcome audience in Topeka nowadays. And, because of the super-majorities enjoyed by conservatives in both chambers of the Capitol as well as the governor’s office, it isn’t difficult to pass and enact laws clearly favoring a Trinitarian Christian perspective.

Not difficult, but clearly unconstitutional at both the federal and state level. Article 7 of the Kansas Bill of Rights prohibits “any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” The same establishment clause is found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Yet the fiscal note for HB 2620 suggests no effect on the state budget. The sponsors of this micro-managing intrusion clearly did not consult the Kansas Attorney General’s office. State AG Derek Schmidt generally inserts a liberal amount of taxpayer dollars he expects to spend defending laws that likely will be struck down after the first legal challenge.

We would encourage state legislators once again to focus on the only appropriate charge they have when it comes to public education - paying for it.

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Lawrence Journal-World, March 16

LOB lifeline:

The Kansas Supreme Court’s recent ruling on school finance may have a significant long-term impact on how the state funds K-12 schools across the state. However, the ruling also handed legislators another urgent issue that it must handle now in order to avoid a major funding disruption for the next fiscal year.

House Speaker Ray Merrick has wisely advised legislators not to try to rewrite the state’s complicated school funding formula before the end of the session in May. Trying to rush action on the formula, he contended, could cause lawmakers to “end up making a lot of mistakes.”

The issue, however, that legislators must deal with by July 1 - and hopefully before the end of the current session - deals with equalizing school district funding through their local option budgets (LOB’s). Individual school districts are allowed to supplement their budgets by establishing LOB’s that are funded by local property taxes. The amount raised in local property taxes varies according to how wealthy the districts are, and the state uses a formula to supplement LOB’s for poorer districts that need that help. For instance, the Lawrence district received $3.6 million from the state toward its $23.4 million LOB this year; Eudora received $1.6 million, more than half of its total $3.1 million LOB.

However, since the Great Recession, the state hasn’t fully funded its LOB obligation to any state school district. That, according to the court ruling, has resulted in a growing inequity between richer and poorer districts in the state. Therefore, the court said, the state must either correct that inequity by fully funding LOBs or find another way to correct the discrepancy. If it does not, the three-judge panel overseeing the school finance case has been ordered to completely discontinue the LOB program across the state or “enter such other orders as it deems appropriate.”

As Merrick has pointed out, the Legislature really doesn’t have time to come up with another equalization strategy. However, dropping the LOB program entirely would be devastating. According to a veteran Kansas Department of Education staff member, dropping LOB’s would cost school districts across the state up to $1 billion or about 25 percent of their total operating budgets.

State education officials have estimated it would cost about $129 million to satisfy the court’s option of fully funding LOB’s for the next year. That’s a significant, but not overwhelming, amount of money to find in the state budget. Whether or not legislators think the LOB program will be part of the state’s long-term school funding strategy, they should look at that $129 million as a short-term life preserver for Kansas schools. Legislators have time to study the complicated school finance formula but, for now, they need to take the relatively simple action of warding off a court action that could severely handicap public education in the state next year.

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The Kansas City Star, March 17

Protect the people from dangerous copycat bills:

When Kansas Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook introduced a bill last week to crack down on volunteer health care “navigators,” the Shawnee Republican wasn’t responding to a real issue.

But like a dutiful puppet, she was responding to the political masters who are blanketing states across the nation with mostly conservative legislative obstructions to rational and civil society.

Indeed the Kansas bill is not unlike one introduced in Arizona and other states.

Sound familiar? An earlier Kansas House bill to advance “religious freedom” by allowing gay discrimination among retail vendors in the wedding industry parroted legislation in as many as 18 states. One met a resounding veto in Arizona - a veto issued by a Republican governor no doubt pressured by business interests who, much to their credit, didn’t think such a law was a good idea.

Any opportunity to attack the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion or gay marriage; any opportunity to restrict voters’ rights based on an overblown fear of identity “fraud”; any opportunity to boost the fortunes of a wide-ranging community of major corporations at the expense of consumers and workers - that’s the way the so-called “bill mills” produce “model legislation” for the likes of Pilcher-Cook and her conservative colleagues in Kansas, Missouri and everywhere else.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is one of the best-known operators. It should come as no surprise that two Kansas legislative leaders, House Speaker Ron Merrick and Senate President Susan Wagle, sit on ALEC’s board.

Americans for Prosperity, one of the nodes of influence in the web of groups tied to the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers, is another.

Family Policy Councils in Missouri and Kansas and other states, linked to the Focus on the Family organization, actively push the so-called religious liberty bills like the one introduced by Shawnee Republican Charles Macheers.

A report in January by Progress Missouri, a liberal advocacy group, laid out the scope of this kind of group-think:

“ALEC bills in Missouri include so-called right-to-work laws, bans on implementation of the Common Core State Standards, resolutions supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, an act relating to wireless communication towers, voter registration hurdles, a ‘parent trigger act,’ a ‘parents’ rights’ resolution, purely political resolutions ‘reaffirming 10th amendment rights,’ a ‘private attorney retention act,’ an Anti-Affordable Care Act ballot measure, a resolution opposing food and beverage taxes, an ‘asbestos fairness act,’ a resolution supporting the electoral college, a ‘castle doctrine’ law, a resolution encouraging Congress to undermine Social Security, and a ‘private property protection act.’”

Preserving the right of gun owners to carry weapons on public college campuses? Sure, it’s now legal in Kansas and at least six other states. Send your thank-you notes to ALEC.

This kind of lawmaking seems like political desperation, a lockstep march in a well-funded culture war.

And remember, these are the small-government people.

The left, of course, has its issues and its legislative campaigns. But progressive lawmakers remain mostly on the defensive in the face of the right’s assault among the states.

Voters should keep close watch on how the sausage-factory works in their backyards. And legislators like Pilcher-Cook should spend less time on these orchestrated schemes and more time helping to better the lives of Kansans, many of whom need protection from these cookie-cutter carpetbaggers.

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The Garden City Telegram, March 16

Proposals would protect public’s right to know:

Kansas has laws in place to keep government open and accessible to all citizens.

The Kansas Open Records Act and Kansas Open Meetings Act exist to protect the right of individuals to inspect public records - information at police stations and school district offices, for example - and gain access to places where public business is conducted, such as school board or city commission meetings.

But too often, secrecy trumps transparency. Proposed legislation would address such failings.

One bill in the Kansas Statehouse would open probable cause affidavits. Kansas reportedly remains the only state to keep those documents sealed and unavailable to the public without a judge’s order.

Without access to the documents, a suspect may be arrested, jailed and even convicted without the public knowing the reasoning behind the arrest.

Police acts, as with any function of government, require oversight. Law enforcement authorities with nothing to hide should have no problem letting the public know their reasons for bringing people to justice.

The bill also addresses search warrant affidavits, and would give a person subjected to a search access to the affidavit after 30 days unless a request is made to seal it for another 30 days.

Another proposal in Topeka would bring clarity to what may be charged for public records, and limit costs for routine requests.

Currently, it’s not unusual for Kansans to encounter high costs to access records that are readily available.

Taxpayers already fund government operations related to the creation of public records. It’s unreasonable to expect them to pay again for the information, unless there are extraordinary challenges in making copies.

No one wants to inconvenience records custodians. Even with costs rightly reined in, we wouldn’t expect a crush of people making requests.

Consider the two proposals under consideration in Topeka necessary ways to shine light on the workings of government. Instead of tolerating policies that in essence discourage access to public documents, the goal should be a free flow of information, and a more informed citizenry.

State lawmakers who believe in the public’s right to know should find the open government bills easy to embrace.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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