- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wichita Eagle, April 16

A Kansas House committee has made a solid start on crafting a new school finance formula. With a few adjustments - including reducing the funding phase-in period - the state could meet its constitutional obligation and avoid potential school closings.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last month that the state is inadequately funding public education, and it gave lawmakers until June 30 to fix it.

The House K-12 Education Budget Committee has completed a new school finance plan that it likely will send to the full House soon after lawmakers return next month. It includes key features that are similar to the state’s earlier court-approved finance formula.

Unlike block grants, which the state used the past two years, funding would be linked to enrollment. As a result, growing districts would get additional funds (though districts with declining enrollments could see reductions).

The proposed formula also recognizes that some students require additional resources. So it adds funding for special education and “at-risk” students.

Both of these increases benefit Wichita, which is a leading provider of special education services and has a higher percentage of low-income students than many districts.

The proposed formula also would fund all-day kindergarten and phase in more funding for an early childhood program - which also would help Wichita.

However, the proposal doesn’t provide enough funding for students whose first language is not English. Wichita has large numbers of these students, including a growing refugee population.

The primary concern about the new formula is that it is underfunded. The House plan would increase state funding by $150 million per year over the next five years ($750 million total).

Wichita’s share of the increase would be about $12.5 million per year (which also could leverage about $2.4 million in additional local aid). That increase would be a big help, but it would barely cover projected cost increases.

USD 259 estimates that its fixed costs - such as for utilities, transportation, computer software and insurance - will increase by $8.2 million next year. It costs another $4.7 million to fund scheduled pay adjustments to teachers based on years of experience and additional education.

Districts also are justifiably concerned about whether the state would honor the five-year funding commitment. After all, it reneged on the previous funding settlement.

The Supreme Court likely also would expect either a larger funding increase or a shorter phase-in period.

Still, the progress in the House committee is encouraging. Now the full Legislature needs to get behind this bipartisan effort and avoid unproductive fights and distractions.

June 30 is coming fast.

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Topeka Capital-Journal, April 17

In March, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that K-12 funding is unconstitutionally inadequate in our state. Since then, lawmakers have been trying to devise a school funding formula that will pass constitutional muster - a requirement that complicates the strenuous effort to produce a budget this session and address $1 billion in projected revenue shortfalls in fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

Earlier this month, a legislative committee voted to increase funding to K-12 schools by $750 million over the next five years - an amount on the upper end of the estimated constitutional mandate. Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat on the K-12 Budget Committee, says it’s necessary for the Legislature to allocate a large sum right away: “Otherwise we’ll be back here doing this same thing again after the court tells us that’s not enough money.” However, even with a $750 million influx under consideration, it’s unclear whether the Supreme Court will countenance $150 million annual installments - some members of the committee worry that the court expects the money to be phased in more quickly.

And this is only one of the potential problems with the five-year funding scheme. Mark Tallman is a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, and he says $750 million is “in the ballpark” - but he worries that lawmakers won’t adhere to the annual commitment: “Will the Legislature sustain it over that five-year period?” As the Legislature ponders frozen pension contributions and the delay of other obligations that will have to be paid back in future sessions, Tallman is right to be concerned. He’s also right to call for a K-12 funding plan that won’t disintegrate “at the first sign of a revenue shortfall.”

Lawmakers are trying to develop such a plan, but there’s no consensus on what it should look like. One possibility would double the state’s 20-mill property tax - a solution Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, described as unlikely: “I think there will be very little appetite for raising people’s property taxes. It’s inevitable that we’re going to have to restore their income taxes - and to put on top of that a property tax increase?” Like many of her colleagues, Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, would like to pass a “comprehensive tax package” that would handle school finance and other core government services.

Rooker voted for House Bill 2178 - major tax reform legislation that made it through the Legislature with strong majorities in both chambers, but failed to get past Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto. Brownback favors a flat tax (which would foist a disproportionate burden on low-income Kansans and generate far less revenue than HB 2178) and such transient budget fixes as withheld KPERS payments and KDOT sweeps. While these measures are tempting in the short term, they’ll ultimately hurt the state because they rest on unsound assumptions about future revenue.

How can Brownback look at the repeated shortfalls the Kansas budget has endured over the past few fiscal years and suggest even more one-time remedies? He seems to think tax revenue will magically spike on its own, regardless of how dire the projections are. Under Brownback’s plan, the state will have a larger KPERS unfunded liability, less reserve funds and less money to make $150 million K-12 payments every year. This is a future that can only be avoided by passing the comprehensive tax package that Rooker and many of her fellow lawmakers support.

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Lawrence Journal-World, April 18

The Legislature was right to approve House Bill 2282, allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer beginning in 2019. Gov. Sam Brownback should sign the legislation into law.

Current law limits grocery and convenience stores in Kansas to selling “cereal malt beverage” - beer that is no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume. Strong beer (up to 6 percent alcohol), wine and distilled liquor in package form can only be sold through retail liquor stores, which are limited to selling alcohol. To sell mixers, cups and other items, liquor stores have to establish a separate business, which may be attached to the liquor store but must have a separate entrance and cash register.

The new law - approved 85-40 in the House and 27-11 in the Senate - would allow for the sale of strong beer in grocery and convenience stores beginning April 1, 2019. It also would allow liquor stores to earn up to 20 percent of their total gross sales from nonalcoholic product, excluding cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Kansas is one of only 10 states that bans the sale of strong beer in grocery and convenience stores. Two of those states - neighbors Colorado and Oklahoma - recently approved legislation changing their laws. Oklahoma voters approved a ballot measure last fall allowing the sale of wine and full strength beer in grocery stores beginning in 2018. Colorado passed legislation that will phase in full-strength beer sales in grocery stores beginning in 2019.

Retail liquor stores have lobbied for years against changing existing law, arguing that doing so will irreparably harm their businesses. Conversely, grocery and convenience stores have long advocated for the change arguing that the law creates an unfair advantage for retail liquor stores and harms consumers.

It’s important to note that liquor stores will still be the only outlets that can sell wine and liquor in package form. And because the law doesn’t take effect until 2019, the stores have almost two years to prepare for the transition.

The benefit to consumers is the best argument for the law. Expanding the retail market for beer sales will create more options and better pricing for residents.

Current laws regarding beer sales in Kansas were developed largely in the years following Prohibition. It makes sense for Kansas to modernize its alcohol laws and allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, especially now that every bordering state will soon allow such sales.

House Bill 2282 is reasonable legislation. It gives consumers more choices and better prices, and it gives retail liquor stores the time and opportunity to adjust their businesses. Brownback should sign the bill into law.

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Salina Journal, April 18

It has been almost two years since the Legislature gave Secretary of State Kris Kobach the power to prosecute voter fraud in Kansas, and he just secured his first conviction of a former noncitizen who voted in the state.

Although Victor David Garcia Bebek became a naturalized U.S. citizen two months ago, he voted twice in 2012 and once in 2014. After his office announced Bebek’s guilty plea, a triumphant Kobach immediately started attacking his political rivals: “No matter how many cases we prosecute, the political left will always whine that there are not enough cases to justify protecting our elections in this way. That’s absurd.”

Kobach makes it sound as if the “political left” is ignoring the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that noncitizen voting is a rampant crisis in our state. But the record doesn’t agree with this assertion - between 1995 and 2013, there were only three documented cases of noncitizens voting in federal elections in Kansas. While Kobach argues that county prosecutors haven’t been pursuing voter fraud cases vigorously enough (one of his reasons for demanding prosecutorial authority in the first place), his single noncitizen conviction in 22 months doesn’t provide much support for that claim.

In a statement issued by the secretary of state’s office, Kobach reiterated the consequences of illegal voting: “The problem of noncitizens voting is a serious one, both in Kansas and nationally. Every time a noncitizen votes, it cancels out the vote of a United States citizen.”

This is unambiguously true, but Kobach’s victory must be viewed in the context of an obsessive anti-voter fraud campaign that has canceled out far more than one vote. This is why people on the “political left” - along with other critics across the ideological continuum - are so concerned about Kobach’s fanatical preoccupation with fraudulent voting (particularly when it comes to noncitizens).

In 2011, Kansas passed the Secure and Fair Elections Act (a bill championed by Kobach), which imposed a series of the most restrictive election laws in the U.S. Over the past year, multiple federal and state lawsuits have been filed against the proof-of-citizenship requirement, and Kobach has lost in court again and again.

Last year, a federal judge ordered Kobach to allow more than 17,000 Kansans (who had registered to vote at Department of Motor Vehicles offices without providing a birth certificate, passport, naturalization papers or other form of citizenship ID) to participate in national elections. A few months later, a Shawnee County district judge extended the order to encompass state and local elections, as well. Even if a few of these people were trying to vote illegally (and there’s no evidence that they were), was stopping them really worth disenfranchising thousands of our state’s citizens?

A month before Kobach announced Bebek’s conviction, the Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that the SAFE Act “may have been written and implemented with improper, discriminatory intent.” Moreover, the state’s voter ID requirements “may impose a substantially higher burden than that which has been previously challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court,” while the possibility that some Kansans will have to pay for identification documents “may effectively be compared to a poll tax, which is unconstitutional under both the 14th and 24th Amendments.”

The fact that our secretary of state finds these concerns “absurd” is worse than disturbing - it’s shameful.

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