- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Kansas City Star, March 19

The Kansas City, Kan., School District serves many children who don’t receive a rich sampling of vocabulary at home.

So when a 4-year-old at the district’s Earl Watson Jr. Early Childhood Center says, “I want two apple slices,” classroom assistant Renee Fensholt is sincere when she responds, “I love how you’re using those long sentences.”

If the young pupil can master a broad spectrum of words along with basic counting skills and sentence structure before entering kindergarten, his prospects for success in school will be greatly enhanced.

Like most school districts, Kansas City, Kan., wants to get as many children as possible into preschool classrooms.

But in cash-starved Kansas, that’s increasingly a challenge. Instead of expanding early childhood programs, Kansas is raiding funds set aside for children in order to keep the lights on.

Kansas wasn’t always like this. Leaders in the 1990s cared enough about children to devise a permanent source of funding to invest in their health and education.

The plan was written into state statute: Money received from an ongoing settlement with tobacco companies would create an endowment to fund programs that deliver measurable results. Each year money would be transferred from the endowment into the Children’s Initiatives Fund for dispersal to school districts and non-profit partners. A Children’s Cabinet was created to monitor and evaluate how the funds are being used.

But legislators and governors have misused the endowment almost since its creation in 2000. They swept money out of it to cover other expenses during recessions and they used it to finance programs, like Parents as Teachers, that previously had been the responsibility of the state general fund.

Just this week, budget negotiators for the House and Senate agreed to take $17.3 million out of the endowment over the next two fiscal years. A trust fund that would contain more than $200 million if it had been left alone to grow and earn interest now has less than $3 million as it awaits the next tobacco payment.

Gone are visions of using the endowment to encourage new initiatives. Providers now count it as a victory if they can hold on to the funding they have. The fear, of course, is that the money will run out altogether.

That would be a tragedy. Money from the Children’s Initiatives Fund helps children with special needs, keeps families together and reduces child abuse, among other things. It pays for children to attend preschool and helps train the people who will be working with them.

A collapse of the Kansas endowment program wouldn’t spell the end of early childhood education in Kansas City, Kan. The school district receives federal Head Start funds to serve children who qualify under income guidelines.

But cuts in state funding force the school district to offer fewer high-quality preschool seats to working families.

“Our belief is we want to serve as many children as we can,” said Kim Shaw, who oversees early childhood programs.

As we said in a recent editorial, the Kansas City region must find ways to make universal early childhood education not just a belief, but a reality.

In Kansas, that starts with convincing lawmakers that it is shortsighted and wrong to decimate a visionary plan that was conceived to put the state in the forefront of early childhood education, not light years behind.


Wichita Eagle, March 18

The Kansas House is finally holding hearings on expanding KanCare, but it remains to be seen how seriously GOP leaders are taking the issue and whether they will even allow a vote.

More than 150 proponents of expanding KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, provided testimony Wednesday to the House Health and Human Services Committee. Representatives of hospitals, safety-net clinics and businesses spoke about the benefits of allowing about 150,000 Kansans to obtain health insurance.

As proponents noted, an expansion of KanCare could transform the lives of many Kansans, most of whom are working. Boosting the health and financial well-being of these working Kansans could also make them more stable employees.

Expansion is also crucial to Kansas hospitals. The federal government reduced payments to hospitals that serve low-income uninsured patients (in expectation that many of these patients would be joining Medicaid). These reductions - which are estimated to total about $1.3 billion statewide over 10 years - are causing job cuts and threaten to put some smaller Kansas hospitals out of business.

Returning more of our tax dollars to the state would also significantly boost the overall Kansas economy. A 2014 study estimated that expansion could increase federal funding by $2.2 billion between 2016 and 2020 and result in more than 3,700 new jobs.

Despite these clear benefits, GOP state lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback have resisted expansion, citing concerns about cost and federal health care. But a proposal this session by the Kansas Hospital Association addresses their concerns and reflects their conservative priorities.

For example, KHA proposes a premium-support program for purchasing private insurance, options for high-deductible plans and health savings accounts, and incentives for healthy behaviors and participation in job searches and training. KHA also would allow for opting out of expansion if the federal funding rate drops below 90 percent. What’s more, Kansas hospitals have offered to pay higher provider taxes to help cover additional state costs of expansion.

Though Brownback has indicated an openness to expansion if the cost is fully covered, GOP legislative leaders have stonewalled. They agreed to this week’s hearings only after Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, attempted last month to force a vote on expansion. And the committee chairman, Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said there won’t be time to work the bill and vote on it.

“I’m just not sure how it goes from here because our committee time is up,” he told the Kansas Health Institute News Service.

But Ward and others likely will find ways to orchestrate a vote by the full House. If and when that happens, lawmakers need to do what’s best for low-income Kansans, businesses, hospitals and the state’s economy, and vote to expand KanCare.


Topeka Capital Journal, March 18

The Dillon House, a historic gem in downtown Topeka, will once again be vibrant with parties and events thanks to the vision of a local development group.

The three-story home, at 404 S.W. 9th St., was home in 1914 to Topeka banker and lawyer Hiram Price Dillon and his family, and it was built as a showplace for entertaining. The motto “None come too early, none stay too late,” which graces the fireplace in the Reception Hall, succinctly expresses that original hospitality.

New owner the Pioneer Group last week opened the renovated Dillon House to its new purpose as a reception and events center and office space. The first floor will be available to rent as a whole or in part and can accommodate groups from 12 to 240 people. The second and third floors will be used as offices for Pioneer Group and Dillon House Events.

With its prime location just west of the Statehouse, with views of the Capitol dome, the Dillon House will no doubt be in high demand.

Just a few short years ago, however, the home’s future was uncertain. The building had been owned by American Home Life Insurance and First Presbyterian Church before the state acquired it in 1998. The possibility of it becoming a new home for the Kansas Arts Commission came up but then fell through in 2010, one year before Gov. Sam Brownback defunded the commission.

The state offered the Dillon House for sale through a sealed bidding process in February 2013, but didn’t receive high enough bids. At auction in June 2013, Pioneer Group president Ross Freeman had the winning bid of $700,000.

The outcome is one of the best possible scenarios - Pioneer Group appears committed to being a careful steward of this historic home. The Kansas Historical Society has described it as “one of the last remaining important architectural structures from the pre-World War I time period of Topeka.”

As an events center, the home will welcome even more local residents and those from across Kansas to enjoy its Italian Renaissance-style architecture, impressive stained-glass windows and beautiful woodwork. Michael Langfitt, president of Dillon House Events, said the company also is working with florists for a holiday display in December.

We are happy that even more residents will be able to appreciate this revitalized piece of Topeka’s history.


Salina Journal, March 22

In justifying his effort to eliminate income taxes in Kansas, in his 2013 State of the State speech Gov. Brownback referred to the period between 2000 to 2010 as “… a lost decade where Kansas lost thousands of private-sector jobs while the rest of America grew.”

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2001, 1.1 million Kansans worked outside government.

In Democrat Kathleen Sebelius’ first year on the job in 2003, private-sector employment dropped to 1.062 but rose in the next five years and peaked at 1.13 million in 2008. At the end of the decade and with 2008’s Great Recession kicking in, employment dipped to 1.066 million.

Brownback took over in 2011 and employment climbed back to 1.079 million and grew to 1.098 million in 2012, the first year of Brownback’s income tax cuts. Under those cuts, it’s estimated a total of 333,000 business owners no longer pay income taxes.

And those tax cuts spurred private sector employment, right? Well actually, compared to our nearby states, Kansas is doing fine. While earlier figures had Kansas lagging the region, updated Bureau of Labor statistics show private sector job growth for the state in 2014 was 1.9 percent. Missouri was 1.2 percent, Nebraska 1.4 percent, Oklahoma 1.5 percent, Colorado 3.5 percent and Arkansas 2.8 percent.

We’re happy for the job growth, but the bottom line is just that - the state’s bottom line. The loss of revenue from the income tax cuts has meant that Kansas has drained its savings, suffered a credit downgrade and is looking at everything from education to highways for places to pull money. In addition, we’re looking at more tax increases to fill a deficit of more than $300 for the remainder of this year and $600 million for next fiscal year.

When Brownback points out that we’re leading the region in job growth, Kansans have to ask themselves if all the financial and social upheaval the state is facing was worth the cuts? We’d say no.

Compared with what Brownback’s tenure has brought Kansas, we’ll take the “lost decade” anytime.

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