- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Wichita Eagle, April 2

Kansans have learned to keep expectations low about the state’s fiscal condition, which made March’s $1.7 million miss of revenue estimates almost something to celebrate.

But it was still the 12th time in 13 months that collections have come up short. And March does nothing to shrink the budget hole that lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback will face April 27, when they’ll also have new official revenue estimates and perhaps another Kansas Supreme Court ruling to consider as they try to wrap up the session’s work.

Up 3 percent from estimates, the March sales tax receipts were a relief after months of disappointing collections, but individual income taxes were 9 percent and $14 million short of projections - another indicator of the state’s fiscal disorder.

There is a growing realization that something must be done, other than giving the administration freer rein to borrow or to draw down funds meant for highways and children’s programs.

Many tax filers have been disappointed to learn that the 2015 Legislature not only hiked the statewide sales tax rate and cigarette tax but also eliminated most state income tax deductions, including for medical expenses, and halved the property tax and mortgage interest deductions.

That was an effective increase in income taxes for them, accompanied by a pause in Brownback’s promised “march to zero” state income taxes for all.

Meanwhile, of course, the full exemption on state income taxes on the pass-through income of 330,000 business owners and farmers continues. The governor has threatened to veto any rollback of that perk. But that deterrent may not last, and shouldn’t.

A recent House hearing featured testimony from a number of business owners favoring a do-over on the pass-through exemption.

A Wichita Independent Business Association survey of members found nearly 80 percent support for changing the law, even though 45 percent of the 52 respondents benefit from it, according to the Wichita Business Journal.

When the beneficiaries of a tax break are calling for its reform or repeal, state leaders ought to listen.

The case for standing by the exemption weakens further with every report about Kansas’ economy, which has yet to show evidence of the “shot of adrenaline” Brownback said his tax cuts would deliver.

Kansas’ income growth was just 2.5 percent last year, the seventh worst rate in the nation. Kansas also lost 5,400 seasonally adjusted nonfarm jobs between February 2015 and February 2016 - far from the gain of 25,000 a year Brownback set as a goal during his re-election campaign.

Brownback and his fiscal team may have faith that their tax policy will prevail - eventually. But at what cost? More and more Kansans recognize both the reality and elected officials’ responsibility to react to it with more than fund raids, service cuts and deeper debt.

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Lawrence Journal-World, March 31

A backlog of unprocessed applications from people seeking Medicaid coverage in Kansas is placing an undue burden on nursing homes and long-term care facilities and perhaps compromising care for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Officials in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment confirmed this week that the office has 7,000 applications for Medicaid coverage that were filed more than 45 days ago. The applications include people applying for the first time and those who are seeking the required annual approval to continue their coverage.

The backlog is so large that KDHE has taken the unusual step of authorizing “advance payments” of half the normal daily rate to nursing homes and long-term care facilities whose patients have unprocessed Medicaid applications. If the patients subsequently are found eligible for Medicaid, the nursing homes will receive the remaining payment (with interest?). If they are found ineligible, the nursing homes would have to repay the state.

So, because KDHE can’t do its job in a timely fashion, nursing homes and care facilities must use their limited resources to try to determine on their own whether patients qualify for Medicaid. If they think they will, the facilities then must bear the cost of caring for these patients, perhaps for months, while waiting for a state determination and payment. If the facilities guess wrong, they will have to repay the advance payments to the state and either cover the loss themselves or bill a patient who may not be able to pay.

Officials for Kansas Advocates for Better Care, a nursing home advocacy group, say the lack of financial resources may be affecting the care of patients. They cite one case in which a patient submitted a Medicaid application in September, provided all the required information by November and wasn’t approved until February. In the meantime, the patient had been in four different nursing homes and four psychiatric facilities because none of the facilities wanted to invest too much in a patient for whom they might not receive Medicaid reimbursement.

How can this happen? KDHE officials point to a new automated application system that apparently has given them problems and the decisions to shift Medicaid applications for elderly and disabled Kansans to KDHE instead of the Department for Children and Families. They also claim that an open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act triggered an increase in Medicaid applications, apparently by raising people’s awareness that they might qualify for that program.

None of these factors justifies the current situation. The state doesn’t have a very good record with new computer systems, but the Medicaid administration shouldn’t have been shifted until both the computers and the personnel at KDHE were prepared to handle that task. If the staff couldn’t handle the unusual number of applications they say came in between November and January, more staff should have been hired.

They say additional staff is being hired now, but why didn’t that happen sooner? The well-being of Kansas residents is at stake.

The Brownback administration often justifies changes in the civil service system and other procedures by saying government needs to operate more like private business. If that is the standard, it’s hard to see how KDHE, wouldn’t have gone out of business long ago.

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Topeka Capital-Journal, March 28

Enjoy your break, Kansas legislators, but be ready to work when you return next month.

The Kansas Legislature ended its regular session Thursday and won’t return to the Statehouse until April 27. The first few months of the session resulted in several accomplishments but left several major priorities on the table.

Let’s recap, beginning with the successes.

In late January, the Legislature passed and Gov. Sam Brownback signed a solution to the judicial funding showdown. This was a crisis of the Legislature’s own making when it passed legislation to defund the courts if the Kansas Supreme Court ruled against the Legislature’s attempt to demand direct elections of judges.

Fortunately, the Legislature had time to fix the law before funding ran out, which it did efficiently and effectively in January.

Juvenile justice reform may prove to be the crowning achievement of the 2016 legislative session. A bipartisan overhaul of the state’s system for punishing minors was much needed to reduce incarceration and shift millions of dollars into community recidivism programs.

For nine months, individuals and committees researched juvenile justice. It was the sort of scholarly and wonky work that isn’t always noticed - but the results will be.

Sen. Greg Smith has ushered the bill through the Legislature. He predicts a 60 percent drop in out-of-home placements for juveniles, freeing up $75 million for juvenile programs.

Most recently, both the House and Senate passed legislation to deal with the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on school funding equity. While far from perfect, the bill would ensure no district loses funding next year.

Still, a few major issues remain unresolved. Chief among them is the budget mess.

Any below-expectation revenue figures will force legislators to again cut from the governor’s budget or raise taxes, as they did last year. Considering the unpopularity of the 2015 tax increases, cuts seem likely.

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said legislators will roll up their sleeves and get to work if there are revenue shortfalls. We sure hope he is right.

The people of Kansas have no desire to see another record-long session full of infighting and squabbles. Everyone in the Capitol knows the budget must balance, so let’s make it happen.

House and Senate leaders also should reach an agreement on STAR bond reform. The need for more oversight and prohibitions on moving money around are clear.

If the 2015 session accomplished anything, it was showing the path no one wants to go down. Come back to Topeka ready to work, legislators, and wrap up the session the right way.

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Pittsburg Morning Sun, March 31

Word came down late Thursday afternoon that Judge Larry D. Hendricks had denied the petition for judicial review put forth by the Cherokee County Commission in the lawsuit against the Kansas Crossing Casino.

The ruling - which essentially tells the Cherokee County Commission “no” for a third time - if anything, is overdue.

This delay has cost the State of Kansas millions in revenue and Crawford County, the City of Pittsburg - and indeed, Cherokee County - hundreds of thousands of dollars all for what amounted to a fit of pique.

Castle Rock, the losing bidder, affronted at losing what was - being generous - an over-optimistic proposal from developers more familiar with used cars than casinos, decided to sue; and drag Cherokee County along with it. It was an exciting proposition for a Las Vegas-style resort to rival Downstream.

The only problem was that it was unclear it could meet its debt service.

The Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission wisely went with a proven commodity in the Kansas Crossing proposal, by a company which already operates other casinos in the state.

Castle Rock then sued and convinced Cherokee County to do so as well.

At least one Cherokee County Commissioner tells us he regards this latest defeat as final and, while he cannot speak for the other commissioners, he says as far as he’s concerned the only reason this has gone on as long as it has is because a Galena businessman has paid the legal fees.

It is still possible that this latest denial could be appealed. If so it would be a travesty.

We are unsure how many more ways Judge Hendricks needs to say “no” but perhaps If the commissioners believe this lawsuit is in the best interest of the citizens of Cherokee County, they should pay for it themselves rather than allowing someone who has a private vested interest in the outcome to foot the bill.

Either way, Hendricks has made clear he believes the gaming commission made the right call. Cherokee County and Castle Rock need to listen.


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