- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Topeka Capital-Journal, May 17

State budget - spread the burden around:

Kansas legislators walked away from the Statehouse on Friday knowing they still had much work to do on the state’s 2016 budget, and that completing the job isn’t going to be easy.

Earlier in the day, House members had rejected a proposal that would have closed the gap - of more than $400 million - between budgeted expenditures and projected revenue with increased consumption taxes, largely a sales tax of 6.85 percent. Kansas’ current sales tax rate is 6.15 percent. The jump to 6.85 percent would have generated about $362 million.

House members, however, wanted none of it. And legislators still haven’t made a serious move to another major revenue source - backing up on income tax exemptions granted limited liability corporations and some other businesses in 2012.

Legislators must stop dancing around the issue and come to grips with the fact a solution to the budget gap isn’t going be found hiding in one dark corner. Relief must come from several areas.

Some have urged legislators to close the gap with spending cuts rather than additional tax revenue. If there are savings to be found on the expenditure side of the budget, then consider them. But lawmakers have been told reductions that could be made in areas of discretionary spending have been made. Positions that could be cut have been cut, and positions that could be left vacant are vacant.

The money out there to be found is in higher consumption taxes, favored by Gov. Sam Brownback but feared by legislators who must seek re-election next year, and trimming to some degree the tax exemptions granted LLCs, which Brownback has insisted he will protect with his veto power.

A solution to the budget puzzle is to be found somewhere in the middle, although many in the Statehouse consider “middle” a dirty word.

Reducing taxes to spur employment was not a bad idea, but it was one to be entered carefully, in steps, rather than one huge leap.

The exemptions should have been, and still can be, tied to actual jobs or payroll increases created. Those things would have ensured the exemptions were creating tax revenue from a different source. As it is, no one has yet produced a measure of the benefit received via the exemptions. Perhaps a Legislative Post Audit review is warranted so everyone will know how many jobs and how much payroll the tax exemptions have provided.

But for now, legislators have a big job to do. Finding a way to spread the burden around would be of benefit to legislators and all Kansans.

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The Wichita Eagle, May 14

Movement on marijuana:

Because of Wichita’s approval of a city ordinance in April and House action last week, Kansas no longer seems like the last place you’d expect to weaken marijuana laws.

The Kansas Supreme Court’s order Wednesday in response to Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s challenge of Wichita’s new marijuana ordinance was welcome news. The September oral arguments and resulting ruling should clarify the future of the ordinance, which is caught up in legal confusion.

Forced onto the April 7 ballot by a successful petition drive, as state law allows, the new ordinance makes first-time possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Wichita a criminal infraction with a $50 fine for those 21 and older - which is at odds with state law’s definition of marijuana possession as a Class A misdemeanor subject to a $2,500 fine and one year in jail.

Approval of the ordinance, with 54 percent of the vote, came despite warnings from Schmidt that it “may not lawfully be adopted.” The high court’s decision to hear the case brought by Schmidt puts the ordinance on hold but promises a more definitive judgment sooner than did a city-filed lawsuit at the district level. Wichitans who signed the petition and voted “yes” deserve to know as quickly as possible whether the ordinance is valid and enforceable, as do the city leaders, police officers and Municipal Court officials who’d be expected to implement it.

When Schmidt advised Wichita’s petitioners in March that they should have gone to the Legislature instead of City Hall, the idea of legislative approval for any kind of marijuana reform seemed far-fetched. But last week the House voted 81-36 to lower penalties for first and second possessions of marijuana (which would save an estimated $1.7 million through fiscal 2017 by decreasing inmate numbers). It also would allow doctors to prescribe medicinal hemp oil to treat seizures, and enable the state to study industrial hemp. Even if House Bill 2049 ends there, with no Senate action, it opens the door to reform.

A recent opinion poll furthered the impression that the state, like much of the nation, is quickly changing its thinking on pot. The latest Kansas Speaks survey, released last month by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, found 63 percent support for fining (rather than jailing) those arrested with small amounts of marijuana and 68 percent support for allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana.

Though it’s no Colorado yet, Kansas has company in the heartland in shifting its stand on pot: Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature gave initial approval this week to a medical marijuana bill.

Much remains uncertain, but recent events should raise hopes for Kansans who see in marijuana reform the opportunities to save tax dollars and ease suffering.

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Lawrence Journal-World, May 18

Legislative plans to change local election schedule aren’t making sense:

Things always get a little crazy at the end of a legislative session, but progress on legislation to change the timing of local elections has been particularly hard to follow this year.

Early last week, it was announced that the Kansas House and Senate had reached an agreement to move city and school board elections to November in even-numbered years. However, by Wednesday that bill had taken a sharp turn, with the Senate approving and sending to the House a bill that would move local elections to November but in ODD-numbered years. In either case, the local elections would remain non-partisan.

Huh?

This switch on odd-numbered years seems to have just as many drawbacks but none of the benefits that were being touted for moving local elections from their current spring schedule.

Proponents of the election switch argued that moving local elections to November and combining them with state and national elections in even-numbered years would increase voter turnout, which has been dismally low. But if local elections are held in odd-numbered years, that benefit will go away.

Some legislators have argued, but presented no data to support the contention, that more people will vote in November because people are in the habit of voting in November. Really? People in Lawrence and other Kansas cities have a pretty well established habit of voting for city and school officials in April.

The filing deadline for city and school board posts would be June 1, meaning that campaigns for those seats would stretch to at least five months. Primary elections would be held in August, when Kansas University isn’t in session and many families plan vacations - not exactly a good time to expect strong voter turnout.

On the positive side, holding local elections in odd-numbered years would keep them separate from the partisan state and national races and keep them from getting lost on an excessively long ballot.

But wait a minute; isn’t that already true of the spring election schedule?

At this point, legislators should be seriously asking themselves what problem this bill is trying to solve. If they don’t have a good answer, they should just leave well enough alone.

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The Hutchinson News, May 18

State fair board seriously considering going smoke-free:

The Kansas State Fair board of directors appears to be taking seriously the pleas of local youth and others to make the fairgrounds non-smoking.

The fair board will take up the subject at its meeting today rather than wait for another fair to pass and civic-minded students involved in the Communities that Care organization to make yet another pitch. And Fair Manager Denny Stoecklein told The News that he and his staff have been contacting other fairs that have gone smoke-free to get feedback on their experiences.

More than 15 state fairs have implemented smoking restrictions of some kind, whether going smoke-free or designating smoking areas on the grounds. Of those contacted by The News, none reported suffering any decline in attendance as a result.

That’s exactly what high school students in CTC found. They first approached the fair board last year with the request to go smoke-free — presenting board members, to make their point, a container of 2,650 cigarette butts they had collected in one hour at the fair. They returned two months ago, traveling to a fair board meeting in Manhattan and presenting the research they had done.

Students also have collected more than 6,000 signatures on a petition to go smoke-free at the fair.

The students have made the case that this is a health issue, duly noting the hazards of second-hand smoke. But it’s also a fair experience issue. Smoke degrades that experience. The Kansas State Fair seems likely to get the same reaction to a smoke-free experience that restaurants and other public gathering places got when they went that direction — a few smokers are inconvenienced, but the vast majority of patrons love it.

It could start with the creation of designated smoking areas. But it is time to start.

The persistence of the CTC students is to be commended. And, now, the fair board is looking seriously at the notion of a smoke-free grounds. That is as it should, but it is welcome progress nonetheless.

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