- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Manhattan Mercury, Aug. 22

KCC goes to bat for ratepayers:

Usually when Kansans hear about Westar Energy and the Kansas Corporation Commission, it has to do with a request for a rate increase.

Now, however, the KCC has filed a complaint against Westar, the state’s largest electric utility, that ought to delight ratepayers but could displease Westar’s shareholders. If the KCC prevails, the upshot could be an annual rate cut of more than $15 million. Moreover, the KCC says in a press release, based on “anticipated utility growth,” this figure could roughly double over the next five years.

The KCC’s complaint, filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, alleges that Westar is charging “unjust and unreasonable” transmission rates. More specifically, it challenges the fairness of the Return on Equity component of Westar’s Transmission Rate Formula. The KCC contends that Westar’s 11.3 percent return on equity is excessive and results in “unjust and unreasonable” rates for Kansas customers. The KCC further contends that according to its analysis, Westar’s return on equity should be 9.37 percent.

That seems like a reasonable return on equity, but Westar wants - and says it needs - the higher level.

In a press release, Westar President and CEO Mark Ruelle said, “To ensure our Kansas infrastructure continues to serve our communities and keeps our state competitive, we need to remain on a level playing field with our neighbors.” The statement further said that although Westar’s transmission service is a small part of the total utility costs, “it is a cornerstone on which our state’s reliability, access to low-cost power and renewable energy rest.”

Added Mr. Ruelle: “We appreciate the role the KCC has in balancing the public interest, but in this matter, we just have to agree to disagree.”

We, too, appreciate the role the KCC plays, and we take some comfort that the agency is challenging Westar. It’s worth noting that before the agency filed its complaint with federal regulators, the KCC asked Westar to scale back the return on equity on its transmission formula.

We don’t doubt that the KCC is aware of the importance of Westar’s transmission service to its overall service. Yet we trust that the commission, which has seemed on occasion to give utility companies the benefit of the doubt on rate matters, is appropriately putting ratepayers first in this dispute.

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The Hutchinson News, Aug. 22

Leaders ignoring issues that face rural hospitals:

People who live in the small rural communities of Kansas rely on the critical access hospitals that serve their hometowns. Yet, keeping those hospitals afloat is a constant struggle that requires extraordinary investment from taxpayers - fewer of whom are left each year to support those hospitals.

The situation isn’t being helped by the bullheaded decision by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature to reject a federal expansion of Medicaid. Health-care officials repeatedly have stressed that failure to accept the expansion will leave more people relying on emergency room service, which is the most costly health care and which often goes unpaid. Complicating the issue further is that those same hospitals also will experience a reduction in Medicare reimbursement, a measure based on the assumption that those hospitals would offset the decrease by increased coverage through Medicaid.

That reality puts the burden of financing rural hospitals squarely on the backs of the rural residents who want and need those hospitals in their communities. Throughout the state, voters have approved local bond issues and other financing to upgrade, repair and finance the operations of their small hospitals.

Yet the long-term reality is that those communities can’t support their hospitals indefinitely. With an aging population, the tax base shrinks each year. And like when a school closes in a rural community, the closing of a hospital makes it harder for those towns to attract new residents who can help support the hospital, the local school district and small businesses.

Topeka, however, seems to have little concern for the future of rural Kansas. The state’s decision-makers have flatly ignored this issue, because the reality - that they’re systematically killing western Kansas communities - doesn’t blend well with their ideologically driven campaign message. And the proven support from taxpayers to keep these hospitals afloat undermines the thin and thoughtless message that there’s no such thing as a good, or useful, tax.

Maybe, someday, concern for the real issues facing the rural parts of Kansas will supersede elected officials’ desire to retain their seats in Topeka. Then the state can begin to explore ways to make health care accessible and affordable to Kansans in the smallest towns. That can begin with the simple decision to accept an expansion of Medicaid.

Until then, the burden and the cost will remain on individual communities that already struggle to keep their towns inviting and viable in the face of constant disregard from the people who could provide some relief with a simple “yes.”

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The Wichita Eagle, Aug. 24

Fresh look at schools:

There’s no harm in having fresh eyes and minds consider how to make Kansas public schools more efficient. But what seems like the state’s umpteenth effort to do so should put as high a value on schools being more effective - and on what those who teach in and lead schools have to say about how to better meet those goals.

Skepticism is inevitable given the origins and makeup of the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission and how fruitless such exercises often prove to be (seemingly including Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012-13 school efficiency task force).

Language establishing the latest panel was among the lesser offenses of House Bill 2506, the late-night legislation that bundled court-ordered new money and property-tax relief for districts with unvetted ideological policy reforms. “The commission shall study and make recommendations to the Legislature regarding opportunities to make more efficient use of taxpayer money,” the bill said.

If that sounded promising, the first two appointments to the panel sounded like a setup: Kansas Chamber of Commerce president Mike O’Neal and Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert, both viewed as hired guns of anti-spending and anti-union business interests.

But Wichita, which has by far the state’s largest school district, is well-represented. Businessman Sam Williams is chairman, with Wichita East High School principal Ken Thiessen the other appointment by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

And last week’s second commission meeting in Topeka provided some significant insights. Among the messages delivered:

Districts already are collaborating and asking more of even their top bosses. Derby superintendent Craig Wilford, in his role as president of the United School Administrators of Kansas, told the commission that in the 2013-14 school year, three superintendents served more than one district, 62 doubled as the principal in at least one building, and 15 were the principals of every building in their district. He also said more than 75 percent of districts use collaborative purchasing agreements.

Debates about school efficiency must account for the growing diversity and challenges of the student populations, which can drive up the costs of educating them. Kansas City, Kan., school superintendent Cynthia Lane said more than 60 languages are spoken in her district, where more than 85 percent of students live in poverty. “I have students that have never been out of their neighborhood. Literally,” Lane said, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported. Wilford also told the commission: “Kansas is very diverse. We may not know it necessarily by looking at this room, but this room isn’t Kansas.”

Districts are rightly worried about state funding for K-12 drying up along with the tax collections in the wake of the 2012 income tax cuts. “Our classrooms and teachers need not be inequitably saddled with the burden of balancing state budgets,” said Deena Burnett, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers and United Teachers of Wichita, as reported by the Lawrence Journal-World. Wilford called for multiyear funding plans to enable school boards and administrators to plan long term and to encourage innovation and efficiency.

Of course, whatever the commission comes up with in the way of recommendations by Jan. 9 for the Legislature could end up being overshadowed by another panel’s findings: the long-awaited Kansas Supreme Court school-finance ruling on whether funding levels are suitable or unconstitutionally low.

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Lawrence Journal-World, Aug. 21

Sexual assault on college campuses:

There’s a lot to learn at college. Unfortunately, one of those lessons apparently is how to protect yourself from sexual assault.

As students return for the fall semester at Kansas University, Baker University, Haskell Indian Nations University and other colleges and universities across the country, there’s a lot of discussion about the prevalence of sexual assault among students. The statistics are shocking but perhaps not as shocking as some of the attitudes that have been revealed in campus studies.

Much of the focus right now is falling on how colleges handle reports of sexual harassment and assault. That’s important, but not as important as how to prevent those assaults in the first place. Personal responsibility is key - especially as it relates to alcohol consumption, a common denominator in many assault situations - but a cultural change also is part of the equation. That includes changing not only the attitudes of would-be assailants but also the willingness of other students - both men and women - to step in to derail potentially threatening situations.

In a confidential KU survey, one in 10 students reported being a victim of sexual harassment, including sexual violence. Of those, only 2 percent reported the incidents to university officials. The Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access said it had received about 30 reports of sexual violence in the last two years, and most of those involved men raping or sexually assaulting women who were drunk.

The reasons for not reporting are many. Students are afraid they’ll get in trouble for being drunk or they blame themselves for behavior that led up to the incident. They may also fear retaliation or the stigma that may be attached to making a report.

Changing the culture toward sexual harassment and assault also is key. A National Public Radio report earlier this week cited a 2002 survey of about 1,800 men at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. That survey revealed about 120 men, about 6 percent of the total, had raped women they knew, sometimes multiple women. The stories recounted in the study didn’t involve any weapons, just a plan to use alcohol to incapacitate an intended target. The perpetrator sometimes enlisted friends to help implement the plan and often bragged later to friends whose support, or at least silence, reinforced the incident as acceptable or even laudable.

The message here seems to be that, although universities play a role in educating students and discouraging sexual harassment and assault, the real pressure to stop this cycle falls on students themselves. They need to monitor not only their own behavior but the behavior of those around them. They need to keep an eye on their friends and be willing to step in when a situation is heading in the wrong direction. It doesn’t need to be a confrontation; a few words can interrupt a bad scenario.

The beginning of a new university term is filled with many new experiences for students. Those experiences shouldn’t include sexual harassment or assault. We urge students to be careful. Look out for yourself and your friends. Don’t be afraid to report incidents, but try hard to keep them from happening in the first place.


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