- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Wichita Eagle, July 22

Oppose Westar electric rate hike:

The Kansas Corporation Commission must judge Westar Energy’s latest rate case on its merits rather than on the public mood. But ratepayers have been saying something about rising electric bills that deserves to be heard: Enough.

Such sentiment motivated the usually deeply divided Sedgwick County Commission to unanimously pass a resolution Wednesday opposing the proposed $152 million rate hike. AARP Kansas and environmental groups also are fighting the proposal.

Kansans are reasonable people who understand that business costs go up regularly and must be passed along to customers. In this case, Westar is seeking the increases to do required environmental upgrades at the La Cygne coal power plant and extend the service life of the Wolf Creek nuclear plant. Experts say that under state regulatory law, some kind of hike is unavoidable.

But it’s not unreasonable to question whether Westar’s 22 rate hikes since 2009 have all been justified, or why Westar’s business model always seems to favor investors at the ever-growing expense of ratepayers.

According to the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, residential bills have risen more than 50 percent since 2009 in the Westar region that includes Wichita (and by 70 percent or more in Westar’s northern Kansas territory).

As part of its latest case, Westar proposes an average 7.9 percent increase for all customers and 12.1 percent hike for residential users, who would see a current $12-a-month charge steadily increase to $27 by October 2019.

“We are tired of these constant and continual surcharges and increases,” said David Springe of CURB.

The watchdog agency advocates the KCC knock down Westar’s hike to a total $50 million and limit the monthly residential charge to $14. CURB further proposes a shareholder return of 8.85 percent, rather than the 10 percent sought by Westar.

The rate proposal also includes some punitive changes affecting customers who want to install rooftop solar panels. The company argues it is leveling the playing field among customers, while solar advocates warn the new fee structure will kill the emerging industry in Kansas.

How the solar-power market fares in the rate case will be an important indicator of where renewable energy stands in the state, especially in the wake of the recent decision by the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback to replace the state’s renewable energy mandate with a nonbinding goal.

At Tuesday’s hearing in Topeka, dozens of people criticized the solar rate proposal and other hikes. After an informal question-and-answer session at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the final public hearing will start at 6 p.m. Thursday at Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 29th Street North and Oliver, with video conferencing sites in Hutchinson and Pittsburg. The KCC will accept written and oral comments through Aug. 11, with a decision expected in October.

Kansans should speak out, and not surrender to the widely held assumption that the KCC will do whatever Westar wants.

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The Kansas City Star, July 24

Kansas must do more for teachers and schools:

As Kansas education officials were expressing angst this month over reports of teachers leaving their jobs at an alarming rate, the Olathe School District announced plans for closing a $2 million budget hole.

Among the cost-cutting measures: The demise of a one-on-one mentoring program for first-year teachers.

The events are part of the same downward spiral. Nationwide, 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years;, many cite a lack of support as their chief reason. The Olathe district was spending about $75,000 a year to compensate veteran teachers for monitoring and counseling new teachers in their buildings.

Now that service is gone. And with it, perhaps, a reason for teachers to commit to an increasingly tough profession.

That’s especially the case in Kansas. Data recently presented to the state Board of Education shows steadily rising numbers of teachers leaving the profession over the past four years, from 491 departures in 2011-2012 to 740 in the academic year just completed.

The report detailed an equally alarming rise in teachers who left Kansas for jobs in other states. This year, 654 teachers made that move, compared with 399 in the 2011-2012 school year.

The number of teachers retiring has nearly doubled over the last four years.

Finances are the overriding problem. Deep tax cuts enacted in 2013 forced school districts around the state into ongoing budget-cutting modes.

Most school districts have tried to keep cuts away from the classroom. But often the reductions mean less support and more duties for teachers.

No one sees light at the end of this tunnel. Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson warned his school board this week to expect less state aid this year.

Hostility plays a role, too. Kansas teachers have watched the governor and Legislature remove their right to a hearing before termination and chip away at their retirement system. A bill that passed the state Senate this year would have made it easier to prosecute teachers who distribute materials that some deem inappropriate.

Brownback and the Legislature should treat the reports on the teacher exodus as a wake-up call. Kansans value public education. They want schools staffed by talented, enthusiastic professionals.

The governor and lawmakers must give schools adequate, stable funding and stop proposing laws that teachers find offensive and punitive. Until that happens, the drain will continue.

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Lawrence Journal-World, July 22

Kansas election officials should welcome audit of voting machine data:

Secretary of State Kris Kobach and election officials in Sedgwick County should welcome an audit that would compare election results reported by voting machines in that county with the paper backup that records each ballot cast on the machines. If these election officials are concerned with protecting the accuracy and integrity of Kansas elections, they should want to know for sure whether the voting machines they are using are accurately recording the votes being cast.

That’s why it’s hard to understand why the election officials are forcing a Wichita State University mathematician to go to court to obtain the paper records that would allow her to audit the performance of the voting machines.

Beth Clarkson, the WSU mathematician, said her statistical analysis revealed patterns in the November 2014 voting that raised suspicions that “some voting systems were being sabotaged.” It’s possible that there are other explanations for the patterns, she said, which is why she wanted to compare the results produced by the voting machines with the paper records.

Because election officials in other parts of the country have reported irregularities linked to the same kind of voting machines being used in Sedgwick County, Clarkson decided that an audit would be beneficial, but her attempts to obtain the paper records have been repeatedly turned aside.

She made her first request after a 2013 election but was told the time to seek a recount of the paper records had passed. She sought the same records in a more timely fashion after the November 2014 election, but Sedgwick County officials said only a judge could release those records.

Election officials obviously need to follow the law concerning the release of this data, but it seems they could be more helpful to an expert who wants to make sure that voting machines are accurately recording the ballots of Kansas voters. Kobach has spent considerable energy talking about individual voter fraud and the threat it poses to Kansas elections. Yet, the impact of a few ineligible voters casting ballots in a Kansas election pales by comparison to the potential impact of voting machines that are inaccurately recording votes either because they are malfunctioning or because they have been tampered with.

Unlike many locations that use the same kind of voting machines, Sedgwick County incurred considerable expense to preserve a paper record of the votes being cast. The purpose of that paper record was to serve as a backup in case there was any doubt that voting machines were operating accurately.

State and Sedgwick County election officials owe it to the people of Kansas to ensure the integrity of voting machines being used in the state. Instead of putting up roadblocks to Clarkson’s request, they should be eager to facilitate her audit.

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Hutchinson News, July 27

Demise of bioscience authority example of state reversing investment:

Once upon a time, Kansas was bullish on economic development. It surveyed the existing emerging industries and identified the biosciences as an opportunity that aligned well with the state’s strengths, creating an opportunity for growth.

Under the Gov. Kathleen Sebelius administration, Kansas developed a plan to become a leader in this space, leveraging existing assets at its state universities, particularly leading veterinary medicine, animal science and agriculture programs at Kansas State University, pharmaceutical and medical research and the University of Kansas and KU Medical Center, plus a strong medical research sector in the Kansas City area.

The initiative was so successful that Kansas won the site competition for the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a huge government contract taken away from Plum Island, New York, and coveted by several other states.

That was the old economic development model. Now, rather than invest in growth, in the Gov. Sam Brownback era the new model is scorched earth, the idea that somehow starving state government will spark private sector investment and job growth. Sadly, it hasn’t worked.

Evidencing how far Brownback has shifted course and the floundering state of the ship, the Kansas Bioscience Authority last week laid off half its staff and put a freeze on new investments. The authority was created in 2004 when the state adopted the bioscience initiative. Initially it granted money to start-up companies and initiatives, then transitioned to a venture capital fund.

The writing has been on the wall. The statute that created the KBA legislated $35 million a year for the effort, but Kansas legislators don’t mind breaking their own laws. They have failed to appropriate anything near that in recent years, and even then the administration has withheld money. So that $35 million dwindled to $4 million last year and $1.7 million this year.

Next year’s budget is on the chopping block because Brownback needs to slash at least $50 million because of the shortfall in state revenue attributed to massive income tax cuts that have been the hallmark of his administration.

This past session the Legislature considered a bill to kill the KBA and fold its responsibilities into the Department of Commerce. That didn’t pass. But starvation appears likely to yield the same result.

The demise of the Kansas Bioscience Authority is just one example of the 180-degree change in philosophy by the new leadership of the state. Kansas bore the fruit of its investment in education, transportation and economic development over the years. It was a smart strategy.

Now we are experiencing probably only the beginning of the drought of austerity.


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