- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Hutchinson News, Oct. 8

Governor should adhere to open records law with appointments:

If Reno County Magistrate Judge Randall McEwen had chosen to make his retirement coincide with the completion of his term, his replacement would have been elected in November 2016, and of course voters would know all the candidates to be considered.

But McEwen, 65, made his retirement effective July 10 this year. That meant the governor was given the responsibility of naming a replacement to serve at least until the end of the term. And Gov. Sam Brownback apparently doesn’t think the citizens of this judicial district need to know what candidates he considered for the appointment.

He last week named Assistant Reno County Juvenile District Attorney Cheryl Allen to fill the post. Allen speculated that seven other candidates were considered. But the public doesn’t know. Brownback’s office declined an open records request by The Hutchinson News for a list of the other applicants.

“We do not release the names of those who have applied to be considered as candidates to protect the confidentiality of their interest in the position and to ensure we have the strongest possible pool of qualified applicants to serve our citizens,” Eileen Hawley, a spokewoman in the governor’s office, said in reply to the request.

That’s a legitimate argument for not disclosing names of candidates for other gubernatorial appointments. We don’t expect to know all the people considered for appointment to the governor’s Cabinet, for example.

But this is an elected position in Reno County. The voters will have the opportunity to select the magistrate judge in next year’s election, and they might well choose Allen. But in the interim, the governor is acting as a proxy for the voters, and he’s giving a leg up to Allen, putting her in a more favorable position to run for re-election. This should be a process that’s completely transparent to the voters of this judicial district.

The Kansas Open Records Act supports this. Government has an exemption for personnel records, but, again, the magistrate judgeship in Reno County is a position elected by the people, not hired by staff.

This flawed argument by the governor’s office already has been tested in court in a similar case in Saline County. There, voters elected to expand their county commission from three to five members a good idea, by the way and the governor had to appoint commissioners to fill the two new positions until the next election. And, like in Reno County, the Brownback administration refused to release the names of all those who applied.

The Salina Journal and Associated Press sued to open the records, and a Shawnee County judge last month ruled in their favor, finding that the applications were not exempt under the open records act.

That ruling seemingly applies to the Reno County situation, too; however, the governor’s office said last week it would appeal the decision.

The governor might well have picked the best candidate for the magistrate judge opening in Reno County. But voters don’t know that without the context of knowing the other options. And it is important to establish a legal precedent here in favor of open government. When we have positions that are elected by the people, the process always should be completely transparent to the people.


Lawrence Journal-World, Oct. 9

State’s uncertain economic picture impacting Kansans in many ways:

Continuing Kansas revenue shortfalls may have a direct impact on the state’s ability to meet its obligations before the end of the fiscal year, but the uncertainty that state tax policy is creating for the Kansas economy already is affecting the state in a variety of ways.

Recent news stories provide a couple of examples.

Moody’s Investors Service, a national credit rating firm, issued a “credit negative” warning for Kansas school districts. The warning was based on concern for the financial stress the state’s block-grant funding system is placing on districts, especially those that are seeing enrollment increases. The flexibility that districts gained through the new funding system may not be sufficient to “offset much of the financial impact to a growing district.” Moody’s warning also raised concerns over limits on districts’ ability to levy local property taxes and a reduction in state aid to help districts service debt for capital projects.

Although the Moody’s spokesman said the warning wouldn’t necessarily result in a credit rating downgrade for Kansas school districts, it nonetheless is a financial red flag.

Higher education also is feeling the pinch. Kansas University is tentatively planning to provide some salary increases for its faculty and staff but is delaying those raises because of the state’s uncertain financial situation. KU officials are worried about instituting those raises now and then finding themselves in a bind if the state decides to make midyear budget cuts because of revenue shortfalls. Gov. Sam Brownback said this week that he wasn’t considering any cuts, but with the state tax revenues already $67 million behind estimates for the current fiscal year, it’s understandable that KU officials are hesitant to commit to the additional spending.

How does uncertainty affect the ability of KU and other state universities to retain key faculty and staff, let alone attract top candidates for open positions on their campuses?

Brownback also ruled out any tax increases to shore up the state budget, and contended “We’ll try to figure a way through it another way.” That comment caused Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley for respond, “I just don’t think he’s in touch with reality.”

The reality of the state’s financial situation already is being felt by public schools, state universities and other state entities. If state revenues continue to decline, it’s a little scary to consider what other ways the state may “try to figure” to meet its financial obligations.


The Wichita Eagle, Oct. 10

Lobbyists picking up the tab:

If plying legislators with food and drink didn’t deliver votes, lobbyists wouldn’t already have spent $500,000 this year to wine, dine and otherwise butter up key lawmakers.

Kansans see this unseemly transaction for what it is, even if the best-fed senators and representatives willfully do not. And the reported expenditures aren’t the half of it, because there is no required disclosure of lobbyists’ administrative overhead, housing costs or salaries.

The 549 registered lobbyists representing 1,650 groups in Kansas cannot donate to campaigns during the legislative session, but can provide unlimited food and drink for them.

“Free” food has become so prevalent at the Statehouse that it was cited as a big reason the Capitol snack bar soon may close. Don Wistuba, the beloved blind proprietor of the concessions stand for 39 years, told The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry: “I don’t sell enough product to cover costs. This year . we had to take up donations just to cover payroll costs because of all the free food.”

The complimentary $15 lunches and $66 prime rib dinners are only part of the shamelessness of influence peddling in Topeka, of course. Among other timely examples: Campaign fundraisers held by KanCare managed-care organization Amerigroup and co-hosted by the Kansas Bankers Association for the Republican members of the Senate committees overseeing health policy and banking regulation, respectively. And, following a pattern that flows both ways, the chiefs of staff of both the Senate president and House speaker resigned this year to become lobbyists.

As part of its 50-state scoring of open-government laws, the Sunlight Foundation recently gave Kansas a C for lobbying disclosure. The group noted that Kansas doesn’t require lobbyists to report small spending amounts or disclose how much they earn from clients, and that the information that is reported is too hard to access and search on the “clunky website” of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

There’s an ongoing legislative effort to illuminate or curb lobbying by local governments and school districts, but Kansas hasn’t changed lobbying law significantly in 15 years.

If legislative leaders wanted to set a higher bar for themselves and lobbyists, they could follow the model state of Wisconsin, for example, where anyone can pull up lobbyists’ names online and see which bills they support or oppose. And isn’t it time to require lobbyists to file their monthly reports to the Secretary of State’s Office electronically? About half still don’t.

Kansans should spend some time with the Kansas.com database of 2015 lobbyist spending and learn who has been feeding and entertaining their elected representatives and senators in Topeka. Ethics reform would make a worthy campaign issue next year.

Those who lobby say it’s about building relationships and educating lawmakers on issues. The legislators talk about it as gathering information from a variety of perspectives and relaxing after a stressful day.

Either way it’s about access and influence which can lead to more the next time the lobbyist wants a word with a harried lawmaker. And those Kansans or causes without the cash to pick up the check aren’t at the table.


Topeka Capital-Journal, Oct. 9

New sentencing guidelines were due:

The U.S. Department of Justice will release about 6,000 federal prisoners in November as a result of new sentencing guidelines that have reduced prison terms for some for drug offenders and a clemency initiative by President Barack Obama’s administration.

The new guidelines are part of bipartisan legislation passed by Congress that eases penalties for nonviolent criminals and also gives judges greater discretion in determining prison terms.

Previous guidelines mandated excessive prison sentences for most drug offenders and gave judges little leeway to impose less stringent sentences when they thought circumstances warranted. As a result, the federal prison system has spent a lot of money over the past several decades housing at the taxpayers’ expense people who pose no physical threat to society. Reports indicate the Justice Department spends about one-third of its annual budget on its prison system.

Estimates are the new guidelines will make about 40,000 prisoners eligible for sentence reductions in coming years. Among those to be freed in November are many who will be released to immigration officials for deportation.

The Associated Press analyzed about 100 court cases involving people slated for release in November and found some who have past convictions for crimes including robbery and assault or had carried semi-automatic weapons. Most, however, are nonviolent offenders who received long sentences dictated by sentencing guidelines born of a “war on drugs” mentality that failed to recognize the drugs keep flowing regardless of how many people are incarcerated or how long they are incarcerated.

Clearly, the new sentencing guidelines, which pose no threat to drug enforcement efforts, are a step in the right direction for nonviolent offenders and the federal prison system.

President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1” in June 1971, and this country’s “war on drugs” began. Since then, untold billions have been spent on drug enforcement and eradication programs that have failed to seriously reduce the drug trade. Today, recreational marijuana use is legal in some states and marijuana is being cultivated and improved in green houses in parts of the country.

Other drugs are plentiful for those who seek them. A news report earlier this year on the reduction of methamphetamine labs in this country noted that trend was due in part to an increase in meth imports from Mexico.

The “war on drugs” is at a stalemate at best and it is time to stop dealing unduly harsh prison terms to nonviolent dealers who are replaced as soon as they are taken off the streets.

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