- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Lawrence Journal-World, Jan. 26

Role of the judicial branch:

The checks and balances provided by the three branches of government have served our state and nation well. There is a natural tension among the executive, legislative and judicial branches that serves to keep the power of any single branch from gaining too much control.

That tension is particularly noticeable in Kansas right now - with both the legislative and executive branches targeting the judiciary - and it’s important that it not be allowed to boil over to the detriment of the state.

Gov. Sam Brownback and a number of legislative leaders have made no secret of their frustration with the state’s highest courts, the way they are appointed and the decisions they have made concerning the state’s financial support of K-12 education. In his State of the State Address, Brownback took some veiled but specific shots at the state’s judiciary and the role it has played in state school funding. Rather than being litigated in the courts, he said, school funding “is the people’s business, done by the people’s house.”

“Too many decisions,” he said, “are made by unaccountable, opaque institutions,” an apparent reference to the state’s appointed judiciary.

So are the courts really “unaccountable” and “opaque”? Judges in all of the state courts are accountable to Kansas voters who have the opportunity to either elect or decide whether to retain them at regular intervals. And the courts are hardly opaque. Most of their proceedings are public, and testimony and decisions are painstakingly documented.

In the same section of his State of the State address, Brownback also quoted from the Kansas Constitution: “All political power is inherent in the people.” That’s true, but “political power,” which rules the executive and legislative branches, represents the power of the majority. That’s why it’s so important to protect the state’s judiciary from the vagaries of political power. The job of the governor and Legislature is to respond to the political will of the people, the majority of voters who elected them. By contrast, the job of the courts often is to protect the rights of the minority and, always, to protect the state’s core principles as they are expressed in the state constitution - not bow to the ever-changing political winds or the preferences of current elected leaders.

In his State of the Judiciary speech last week, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss provided a strong defense of the state’s judiciary and the need to fund it properly, but he also offered credit were it was due, including to the Kansas House for approving much-needed raises for court personnel. “The lines of communication are open,” Nuss said.

Sen. Jeff King, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, responded to what he characterized as an “olive branch” from Nuss with a letter asking the chief justice to support efficiency proposals for the courts and a plan to further raise court fees to fund the courts. Nuss specifically questioned the advisability of higher fees in his address, but at least, as he said, “The lines of communication are open.”

It’s important for the three branches of government to work together, but it’s important to remember that the courts serve a different purpose and different master than the other two branches. The governor and Legislature, with the help of voters, can change the laws or even amend the Kansas Constitution, but once that work is done, it’s up to the courts to make sure the intent and principles of those laws are upheld.


The Wichita Eagle, Jan. 26

Pressure on sales tax:

With state income tax targeted for elimination and property taxes rising in many counties as a predictable consequence of state budget cuts, local and state governments now appear to be elbowing one another to see which can raise sales tax first. The only certainty is that taxpayers will end up getting bruised.

Gov. Sam Brownback and the 2013 Legislature got things started by letting the statewide sales-tax rate of 6.3 percent drop last July only to 6.15 percent, not to 5.7 percent as scheduled. That tax hike left Kansas second only to Mississippi in the nation for the sales tax it charges on food, which is subject to no such tax in 37 states.

After that legislative debate, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, wrote in The Eagle that “we changed the trajectory of our state’s tax policy by moving toward a FairTax model that targets the taxation of consumption (sales) rather than productivity (income)” - which sounded like a warning that more sales-tax hikes could be coming. In addition, Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, plans to introduce legislation to replace most existing Kansas state taxes with such a consumption tax.

As Kansas strains to deal with declining tax collections and reserves according to Brownback’s plan to become a state without an income tax, the sales tax will be one of the only places to go for more revenue.

But sales tax is applied by local governments, too, and there are competing prospects for raising it beyond the current 7.15 percent total rate charged in the Wichita area.

The city of Wichita has spent the past couple of months gathering community input about whether to go to voters with a sales-tax increase proposal. No size or duration of such a hike has been mentioned, but it might fund business recruitment, a new or renovated convention center and performing arts space, an improved bus system, water and sewer system upgrades, a new Central Library and a future water supply.

Then, earlier this month, Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn proposed asking voters in November to raise the sales tax countywide by as much as 1 3/4 cents. He touted the higher sales tax as a way to replace the county’s property-tax mill levy and offer a “shot in the arm to existing businesses and property owners.”

Kansas and Wichita also keep adding special taxing districts to benefit developers in which sales tax is 1 to 2 percent higher, usually targeting visitors or destination shoppers such as at Cabela’s in Wichita. So total tax rates of 8 to 9 percent are common around the state, with a Junction City district topping out at 11.15 percent sales tax.

In a survey last year by Fort Hays State University’s Docking Institute of Public Affairs, the preference was to leave all tax rates - income, property and sales - where they were. But as the pressure rises on the sales tax, Kansans would do well to hold onto their wallets.


The Topeka Capital-Journal, Jan. 23

Enforcing open meetings, records laws:

Legislation that calls for more government and more government spending isn’t exactly popular in many parts of the country these days. But a bill that would allow Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt to create an open government unit within his office is something that is long overdue.

Officials at the attorney general’s office - which proposes to create a two-person unit to investigate complaints about violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act and Kansas Open Records Act - say the initiative would cost about $160,000 a year. It would be money well spent.

The AG’s office now investigates complaints it receives, but assistant attorney general Lisa Mendoza says the office doesn’t have the resources to give those complaints the focus they deserve. The open government unit would change that and provide resources for an intermediate level of administrative review and enforcement of the law, a step that could avoid the need for a lawsuit.

Citizens who think public officials have violated KOMA or KORA also can file a complaint with their local county attorney or district attorney or file a civil lawsuit.

The problem is many individuals can’t afford to file a civil lawsuit and some local prosecutors don’t take violations of KOMA or KORA as seriously as they should.

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor has proven to be a staunch supporter of the state’s open meetings and open records acts - his office devoted the necessary resources to thoroughly investigate KOMA complaints against legislators and the Kansas Corporation Commission - but prosecutors in some other jurisdictions don’t have the resources or inclination to give such complaints the attention they deserve.

As Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as they reviewed the attorney general’s proposal, prosecutors may be reluctant to investigate complaints against the county officials who hold the purse strings to their budgets.

It is to Schmidt’s credit that he has detected a need for more participation by his office and is willing to make it happen.


The Hays Daily News, Jan. 23

Make PEAK program work for all of Kansas:

Kansas wants jobs. Actually, Kansas needs jobs. Despite having one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, state officials know they need to add jobs to help grow the economy - hopefully enough to cover the massive income tax cuts enacted in the past two years.

Even conservative legislators realize the private sector cannot do this all on its own. Direct intervention into the state’s economy by the government is common practice not only in Topeka, but in most cities and counties throughout Kansas.

So it comes as no surprise the Legislature is looking to expand the Kansas Department of Commerce’s PEAK program. Promoting Employment Across Kansas was launched in 2009 to help counter Missouri’s Quality Jobs initiative. PEAK-approved companies that relocate jobs to Kansas are able to retain 95 percent of the income tax withholdings that normally would go to Topeka, as long as the salaries are high enough.

Since 2009, lawmakers continuously have amended the program. Start-up companies in Kansas were added. So were existing Kansas firms looking to expand, then Kansas firms looking to retain jobs. Non-profits were included. Wage requirements were decreased.

This session, House Bill 2430 is attempting to bring even more companies into the PEAK program. Not only would salary minimums be lowered again, the qualifying period defined for existing PEAK companies would be extended. The bill also seeks to change the $6 million annual cap of PEAK funds disbursed, instead of having $6 million be the maximum amount of additional PEAK funds the Commerce Department can award each year.

HB 2430 has not yet had a hearing, but Commerce officials apparently knew questions would be raised. They commissioned the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University to assess client satisfaction and the economic impact of Promoting Employment Across Kansas.

On both counts, the program fared well. “Highly successful,” even.

“For every dollar used in PEAK there’s about $960 in economic activity, which is pretty darn good,” said Preston Gilson, an economist at Docking, during a presentation to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

Gilson said the Kansas economy grew $7.5 billion because of direct and ripple effects from the PEAK initiative.

The Docking study was not 100-percent feel-good, however. Warnings such as, “The full impact of the PEAK Program cannot be validly assessed at this time,” and, “Revised data collection methodology will yield more reliable impact assessment,” were offered as well.

Committee members who had read the Legislature’s own Division of Legislative Post Audit report on the PEAK program likely found those warnings familiar. That audit blasted the Department of Commerce for having incomplete and inaccurate data for the program. More than a few companies had not complied with the reporting requirements, making analysis difficult. A lot of Commerce’s data was based on companies’ self-reported projections, not what actually happened both with hires and capital investments.

The audit also pointed out the disproportionate number of PEAK companies that moved from the Missouri side of the Kansas City metropolitan area to the Kansas side needed to be taken into account. This paper long has maintained moving a company’s operations 10 minutes away will not translate into employees moving into the state or Kansas vendors being selected. We also believe such border raids result in companies obtaining financial gain while both states lose tax revenues to pay for services.

If we don’t know how many qualifying companies are, in effect, corrupting the PEAK program, taxpayers should not be asked to sacrifice even more.

In its response to the audit, the Commerce Department took exception to most of LPA’s findings. Commerce did acknowledge, however, it “has placed a priority on getting companies into the program as opposed to focusing more on certain reporting requirements.”

Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco and a member of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee, has yet to decide if he’ll support expanding the program.

“I do not believe Commerce has fully explained themselves after the LPA report and believe they will get a thorough line of questioning on this during the hearing,” the Hays native said in an email. “We want people and businesses moving to Kansas, not just businesses leapfrogging a border to get tax breaks.”

We welcome such overdue scrutiny. Before legislators expand PEAK even more, they and all Kansans need a better grasp on what’s happening. PEAK is supposed to promote employment across Kansas, not merely in and around Johnson County. And if PEAK is being used as the latest way to play the border war game, tax dollars should not be used.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide