- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Wichita Eagle, March 9

Fix school funding inequities:

The Kansas Supreme Court’s long-awaited Gannon decision rivaled the school-finance formula for complexity, disappointing districts impatient for a fix and partisans itching for a fight. But Kansans can hope Gov. Sam Brownback and other state leaders will take seriously the court’s 110-page ruling and the responsibility it lays out for them to address the inequities in state K-12 funding between rich and poor districts.

For the court, that necessitates full state funding by July 1 of equalization provisions (capital outlay and supplemental local option budget aid), which would amount to about $129 million. For the Legislature and governor, that would seem to mean tapping state reserves or rethinking some of the budget decisions already made during the session’s first half - though it was troubling that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and other GOP leaders suggested that fixing the inequities might not require any extra funding.

The ruling “did not attach a particular number to that,” Schmidt said.

In Friday’s unanimous opinion, the court described its “test for equity in K-12 public education finance” this way: “School districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.”

That part of the ruling effectively blames not only Brownback but also former Gov. Mark Parkinson as well as multiple legislatures for responding to the Great Recession by making cuts that aggravated wealth-related inequities between school districts.

“My commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court. We will fix this,” Brownback said Friday - setting a welcome tone in sharp contrast to the defiant comments about the court in his State of the State address.

But the biggest, most contentious and potentially most costly question about the state’s school funding - whether it’s adequate - remains unanswered for now. The court asked the three-judge panel that heard the case in 2012 to take another look at that issue, which means the Gannon case is far from over.

That defers the remedy sought by Wichita’s USD 259 and the other suing districts, which have closed schools, dropped programs and cut jobs in response to state per-pupil funding cuts since 2009.

But Brownback and lawmakers should not expect the final determination of adequacy by the Supreme Court, whenever that comes, to be vastly different from the court’s 2005 view that the state was falling far short of its constitutional obligation to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

That said, the high court’s move should deter legislative efforts to strip the authority of the Supreme Court to rule on school finance, to change how justices are chosen or otherwise undermine the court. Lawmakers also would be wise to hold off on bills meant to rewrite the school-finance formula, including trying to redirect money from elsewhere in the formula to address the funding inequities.

But it’s some comfort that the constitutional crisis over school funding may have been postponed.


Lawrence Journal-World, March 10

Voting rights:

A bill that would create new limits on when Kansas voters could change their party affiliations is another example of state legislators trying to correct a problem that probably doesn’t exist or at least not to an extent that justifies legislative action.

In this case, that “fix” also could limit Kansas voters’ ability to cast their ballots for their preferred candidates.

The bill that has passed the Senate Ethics and Election Committee last week would bar Kansas voters from changing their party affiliation from June 1 (the filing deadline for candidates) to Sept. 1 (about a month after the August primary elections). The goal of the bill, according to Kansas Republican Party officials, is to prevent voters from switching parties in order to skew the opposing party’s primary. The officials say they have no proof of such switches, but they have a feeling some Democratic voters are switching parties to vote for the Republican candidate they believe is less likely to win against the Democratic opponent.

That might be a little underhanded, but it’s far from the most egregious political tactic employed in most races. And what if the voter actually is switching parties to vote for the candidate he or she prefers?

One of the arguments presented during committee testimony is that primary elections belong to the political party. That’s not really true. Political conventions that choose party nominees belong to the party, but state primaries belong to all state taxpayers.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach also supported the bill, saying it would reduce the administrative burden on county election officers who must record registration changes. That’s pretty ironic coming from the man who is trying to force county election officers to conduct a two-tiered election for people who have registered for federal elections and those registered for state elections. It’s also possible that the workload for county officials actually would increase under the bill because people would switch their registration to “unaffiliated” before the June 1 deadline to keep their options open in the primary. Under the new bill unaffiliated voters still would be able to declare a party at the polls for a primary.

The big question here is whether voters who feel strongly about a candidate from either party should be able to vote for that candidate even in the primary. If a Democrat looks over the field of both Democratic and Republican candidates and finds his or her preferred candidate is a Republican, shouldn’t that voter have an opportunity to help make sure that candidate advances to the general election by winning the Republican primary? The same principle applies in reverse, of course, but contested Democratic primary are far more rare in Kansas.

Party-switching for political purpose may occur to some extent now, but efforts to ban that practice serve an equally political motive that also could infringe on the right of Kansas voters to support their chosen candidates.


The Hutchinson News, March 7

Mortgage fee cure is worse than the fee:

Leave it to the folks in Topeka to take a bad idea and make it even worse.

Earlier this session, lobbyists for Kansas bankers and Realtors pushed to end the mortgage registration fee - a tax that the bill’s proponents argued negatively affects home sales in the state and is unfair because it’s collected on mortgages through banks but not through notes from farm credit agencies.

Counties, however, didn’t like the legislation because it would remove a fair and relatively painless source of revenue for counties, one that if removed likely would increase local property taxes. And money from the fee that is routed to the Heritage Trust Fund, which is used to assist in the restoration of historically valuable properties, would be lost.

Instead of taking the seemingly simple approach of abandoning efforts to eliminate the fee, however, lawmakers have developed a much more complicated plan to replace the flat fee with a per-page filing fee for mortgages. The new plan, developed in the Senate Committee on Assessment and Taxation, seemingly is a convoluted effort to appease the bank and Realtor lobby. Yet the plan complicates the lives of anyone who files mortgage documents.

Under the proposed Senate plan, the current 0.26-percent fee on mortgages would be replaced with a $6 fee for the first page of a mortgage and a $2 fee for each additional page. And the mortgage fee would be decreased over time, while the per-page fee would increase over time - further complicating matters for banks, county workers and people who simply want to buy a house.

All the while, Kansas counties would lose revenue that likely would have to be made up elsewhere.

Sometimes a bad idea ought to be recognized for what it is and, instead of trying to make it work out, simply should be abandoned. That seems to be the case with the mortgage registration fee. There isn’t widespread complaint from the public, only from a narrow group of people who hope to improve their business prospects along the border area in Kansas City.

If the intent was to eliminate a fee, this measure failed. Complicating a fee that few people consider isn’t serving the public; it’s bending over backwards to keep a special interest group happy.


The Topeka Capital-Journal, March 7

Death penalty appeals process shouldn’t be brief:

Kristafer Ailslieger, a deputy solicitor general for the Kansas attorney general’s office who has worked on death penalty cases, believes capital punishment inmates intentionally drag out the appeals process because they’re the ones marching toward the executioner.

His was an interesting choice of words in that while defendants may be in no rush to exhaust their appeals, no one will be marching toward the executioner in Kansas anytime soon.

Nine inmates in state prisons are under death sentences, but none has exhausted his appeals, a condition that many find unacceptable given the time that has elapsed since some of them were sentenced to death.

A bill that would limit to 3 1/2 years the time inmates have to appeal their death sentences to the Kansas Supreme Court has been approved by the Senate and moved to the House, where it will get a hearing in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

While few really harbor doubts about the guilt of those who now are on death row in the state, the limited time frame proposed for appeals is awfully short. If the seemingly interminable appeals process now in place is one extreme, a 3 1/2 year time frame for cases to reach the Supreme Court may be the other extreme.

Surely, there is room for compromise that will speed justice but not rush it.

Rushing justice can lead to mistakes, which include executing the wrong person. Investigations undertaken in recent years have found multiple cases in which the wrong person was convicted of a crime that carried the death penalty. And while the right people may now be on death row in Kansas, a system that encourages speed opens itself to mistakes. Our justice system is not infallible.

Kansans recently heard about a mistake the California justice system made in the case of a Kansas native who spent 24 years in prison there for a murder he didn’t commit before finally being exonerated of the crime. Had the man been convicted of murder in Texas or Florida, it’s unlikely he would have lived long enough for his innocence to be proven.

Family members and friends of murder victims understandably want justice, but punishing the wrong person for a crime doesn’t give them justice.

The appeals process should allow the time necessary to ensure Kansas never sends the wrong person marching toward the executioner.



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