- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Topeka Capital-Journal, Jan. 10

Welcome lawmakers:

Everyone knows lawmakers must find a solution to a problem that has vexed too many Legislatures over the past several administrations - a state budget that has gotten woefully out of balance and threatens not only state business during the current fiscal year but also the next year.

Because Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative leaders already have some ideas about how they want to balance the current budget, that issue may be resolved fairly soon, although it will require legislative approval. Drafting a budget for the state’s 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1, likely will prove to be much more difficult and will take some time, and plenty of debate.

As all that is going on, other issues will demand attention. Those include funding for K-12 public education. A three-member panel of district court judges recently ruled the state’s funding was inadequate and unconstitutional but declined to order the state to dedicate a specific amount of money toward resolving the issue. The issue is expected to arise before the Legislature in some fashion.

Other issues known to be headed toward legislators include a bill regarding human trafficking, which this newspaper is on record as favoring, and a bill regarding abortion. Additional bills, many of which address things the public isn’t aware are issues, will crop up over the next few months as is normally the case with our lawmakers.

The Capital-Journal’s standard advice to legislators at this time of the year is to focus on the really heavy lifting and other weighty issues. Everything else can wait. What doesn’t resurface at a later date, or during the next legislative session, didn’t really deserve a lot of consideration.

Our advice this year is the same. Some things need to be done. Some things should be done. Many things don’t need to be done and shouldn’t be done.

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The Wichita Eagle, Jan. 10

Financial crisis:

Once the ceremony and well wishes are out of the way for Gov. Sam Brownback’s second swearing-in, he and the 2015 Legislature will face a fiscal crisis sure to limit as well as dominate the session.

Faith in the income-tax cuts won over voters, but it won’t pay the state’s bills.

Anything that costs money could be off the table as leaders try to come up with the resources to fund Brownback’s latest two-year budget and stave off further credit downgrades and projected shortfalls for fiscal 2015, 2016 and beyond.

And if lawmakers are inclined to ignore the recent ruling by a Shawnee County District Court panel that the state must come up with $500 million to $770 million more for K-12 public schools - waiting as the appeal proceeds - other key players are paying attention.

After downgrading Kansas’ credit last year, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s both noted last week that the schools ruling will put further pressure on the state as it tries to close a $280 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30 and to right its fiscal course longer term.

“We remain concerned about the one-time nature of most of the budget fixes,” the S&P; report said of Brownback’s plan to raid transportation funds and reduce the state’s pension contributions, among other controversial steps.

“The lower court’s recommendation comes at a particularly stressful time for state finances,” and “staggered tax rate reductions from its 2013 tax reform in fiscal 2016 through 2018 will provide continuing headwinds,” said Moody’s.

Because the governor and GOP-controlled Legislature remain committed to the tax cuts - no matter the consequences to K-12 schools, higher education, social services and other state priorities - it would be surprising if votes could be found to even slow them down, let alone roll them back. If leaders go anywhere in search of new revenue, it likely will be to the transportation plan (again) or perhaps to a higher statewide sales tax or higher gas tax. Forget the good idea to end sales tax on groceries.

In the coming money fight, area lawmakers must be prepared to defend state spending for area highway projects and for Wichita’s air service and special facilities for aviation research and training.

Meanwhile, state leaders must give the judiciary the flexibility it needs to counter a $3.6 million budget deficit (while refraining from further curbing the Supreme Court’s authority). It’s past time for lawmakers to debate and decide Medicaid expansion, which is increasingly urgent for hospitals as well as uninsured Kansans.

And would lawmakers be so kind as to stay away from bills that would flout science, deny service to same-sex couples and otherwise embarrass the state?

As the three-judge panel noted in the schools decision, the state’s fiscal dilemma is “self-imposed.” The leaders who made this mess must now clean it up, though Kansans can be assured the consequences will be felt far from the Capitol and long after Brownback takes his oath.

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The Hutchinson News, Jan. 8

Shaky ground:

South-central Kansas is now home to four shiny new seismic monitoring stations, and by the end of the month a total of seven such stations will track earthquakes in the southern part of the state.

Not tornadoes, thunderstorms, flooding or high winds. Earthquakes.

It’s good news that the state is taking the increase in quakes seriously and installing additional equipment to better track and understand what is happening under the Kansas soil. It’s bad news, however, that it’s something that needs to be done. Kansas isn’t exactly known for it seismic activity, but in recent years it has become a far too common occurrence.

The U.S. Geological Survey recorded 124 earthquakes from Jan. 1 to Dec. 24, 2014, up from 32 in 2013 and zero in 2012, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported earlier this week. And the quakes have gotten stronger over time, the largest a 4.9 magnitude on Nov. 12, 2014.

Most of the activity originates from Harper, Sumner and Barber counties, which is also home to some of the most active hydraulic fracturing oil-drilling activity in the state. Despite the undeniable correlation between the rise in “fracking” and earthquakes, reluctance to connect the two persists.

That’s one reason why improving Kansas’ seismic activity network is important. The improved equipment will help geologists pinpoint the location of Kansas quakes and maybe help determine a source for the increased ground movement. Also, the network will help identify the state’s underground fault lines, which will be used to develop an earthquake response plan.

While it’s not great that we have to add earthquakes to the list of disasters that can damage property and cause injury in Kansas, at least the state’s leadership is facing reality and admitting that our once virtually earthquake-free state is now a hotbed of seismic activity.

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Manhattan Mercury, Jan. 7

School efficiency:

Local control of school matters won a couple of small victories Jan. 6 when the state’s school efficiency task force decided not to recommend limiting teacher negotiations and called for the Legislature to fund annual audits of school districts if lawmakers mandate them.

Whether the Legislature adopts those recommendations is another matter.

The task force, called the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission, stems from the presumption in the Legislature that inefficiency in the state’s public schools is inflating the costs of public education. That’s of particular interest because of court rulings that the Legislature’s funding of public education is unconstitutionally inadequate.

On the matter of annual audits for school districts, they can be prudent. Perhaps that’s why the Manhattan-Ogden School District, and we would suspect many other school districts, already commission annual audits. In fact, in addition to a financial audit by a private firm, a staff member from the Kansas Department of Education performs a second audit. This audit focuses more on operational matters and looks into items as varied as enrollment numbers, food service, busing and programs.

But requiring annual audits and requiring school districts to pay for them, as was called for in the efficiency panel’s initial draft, would have amounted to an unfunded mandate and imposed an undue burden on already burdened school districts.

The panel wisely decided to recommend that the state pay for the audits.

The panel’s decision not to recommend limiting teacher negotiations to the issues of salary and hours was something of a surprise given the commission’s earlier sentiment. Currently, other issues, such as vacation time, overtime pay and grievance policies, can be teacher negotiation topics, and the panel initially seemed inclined to strike those unless local teacher unions and districts agreed to include them.

One factor in the panel’s decision is a separate effort involving the Kansas Association of School Boards, the Kansas National Education Association and the United School Administrators of Kansas to reach a compromise on teacher negotiations. Those groups hope to submit their own recommendation to the Legislature.

The efficiency panel also recommended establishing yet another commission to ensure efficiency in public education. Its membership would include chairpersons of several House and Senate committees and the commissioner of education, and it would meet every three years to review and establish best-practice spending guidelines for school districts.

Half of the state budget goes to education, which can justify the supervision. Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that legislative conservatives, smarting from court rulings on school funding, simply don’t trust those involved in public education and are going to considerable lengths to remind them who’s really in charge.

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