- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Kansas City Star, Aug. 27

Reject ugly political attacks in Kansas, retain Supreme Court justices:

A few days ago Kansas House Republicans called on voters to oust four of the five state Supreme Court justices standing for retention later this year. The GOP group said they were part of “an activist and political judiciary.”

Voters should soundly reject this blatant attempt to politicize the court and weaken the judiciary’s role in the state’s three-branch form of government.

Alarmed local business leaders issued their own support for the justices last Wednesday. Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said the effort to unseat them “is unprecedented and worrisome,” adding that his organization “believes politics has no place in the selection and retention of members of the Kansas judiciary.”

That’s an excellent point to keep in mind as conservative Republican members of the Legislature, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and special interest groups such as Kansans for Life lash out against the four justices.

They are Lawton Nuss, Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Marla Luckert. (Notably, the only justice up for retention not mentioned by Kansas House Republicans or other critics is Caleb Stegall, who was appointed to the court by Gov. Sam Brownback.)

Take a step back and contrast the drumbeat of negativity from opponents with a few key facts:

- The people who know the justices best - attorneys and other judges - gave extremely high marks in the comprehensive and anonymous 2016 Judicial Review Survey to the four justices targeted for defeat this November.

Overall, the survey found that the four justices in question most often “render decisions without regard to possible public criticism” and “make reasoned decisions based on the law and facts.” Those are exactly the kinds of justices Kansans should keep on the seven-member court.

The lowest-rated justice, by far, was Stegall, though he still received a majority of support for being retained in office.

- Kansans in a few opinion polls this year have said they are far more “satisfied” with the performance of the Supreme Court than they are with the actions of Brownback and the Legislature.

But make no mistake: Many more ugly attacks are ahead for the four justices.

They have been and will be accused of being “liberals,” wanting to burden Kansans with new spending for K-12 schools, having their opinion constantly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and - especially - being soft on violent crime.

Given the hundreds of cases handled by the court in recent years, no clear patterns exist to prove any of these allegations.

Instead, as supporters note, the justices are in political trouble partly because they have raised the ire of opponents by not kowtowing to the Legislature and the governor. The politicians have pressured the court, without success, to back away from making critical decision on school funding cases in the last few years.

Chief Justice Nuss and Beier told The Star last week that they have done their best to rule on the law without involving politics. One of Nuss’ business cards features a photo of the justices and this notation: “Fair and impartial courts for all Kansans.” The back of the card includes the short oath the justices take to “support … the Constitution of the state of Kansas.”

The justices can’t directly raise money for any campaign to be retained. Instead, advocacy groups will take on that role, trying to counter the politicized views of opponents.

The “Friends of Chief Justice Lawton Nuss Inc.” is one organization gathering money now. The best-known one is Kansans for Fair Courts, which says on its website, “Many things in Kansas are broken right now, but our court system isn’t one of them.”

That brings us to a dismaying part of this venture. Most contributions to retain or oust the justices will be shrouded from public scrutiny. Groups lobbying on both sides of this question legally don’t have to reveal their donations.

No one will know whether the Koch brothers’ interests will give funds to try to get rid of the justices. Or, on the flip side, if big donors will rush to help out Nuss and Co.

That lack of transparency isn’t in the public’s interest.

The overriding goal in the next two-plus months for Kansans is to resist the political witch-hunt against the four Supreme Court justices. They deserve to be retained.

___

Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug. 26

We need to be modest about low unemployment rate:

When Gov. Sam Brownback took office in January 2011, the unemployment rate was 6.9 percent in Kansas and 9.1 percent in the U.S.

Kansas had the ninth-lowest unemployment rate in the country, and it was ticking downward after peaking at 7.3 percent in July 2009 (right as the recession was coming to an end). Since 2011, the unemployment rate has plunged from 6.9 percent to 3.8 percent - a number Brownback touted as “our lowest in 16 years” during a speech to a group of young conservatives in California earlier this month.

Brownback went on: “We’re short of people. At 3.8 percent unemployment, we’ve got plenty of jobs and plenty of work.”

Less than a week after the governor made these comments, the Kansas Department of Labor released its latest employment report. The news wasn’t promising - our state lost 5,600 jobs from June to July, which increased the unemployment rate from 3.8 percent to 4.1 percent (the level it was at a year ago). This means Kansas’ unemployment rate is now only 0.8 percent better than the national average (4.9 percent), and we’re tied with Iowa and Massachusetts for the 14th lowest unemployment rate in the U.S.

Remember: Kansas ranked ninth at the beginning of Brownback’s first term, so we’ve lost five spots. And given the performance of the Kansas economy over the past few years, it won’t be surprising if other states continue to surpass us. While the unemployment rate in Kansas has been relatively low during Brownback’s tenure, it has dropped at a considerably slower rate than the national average for the past five years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29 states saw greater declines in unemployment than Kansas between 2012 and 2013. Over the past three years, Kansas has consistently ranked worse than most of the country in terms of falling unemployment: 34th (2013 to 2014), 38th (2014 to 2015) and 32nd (2015 to 2016). And the most recent ranking is even worse than it sounds - although the unemployment rate was static between 2015 and 2016, overall job growth in Kansas was actually the fifth worst in the U.S over the same period.

The only year Kansas found itself ranked in the top half of the country (2011 to 2012) was the one before Brownback’s tax cuts were passed. If these revenue-depleting cuts were really catalysts of economic growth, why has our state’s post-recession employment performance been so mediocre? Where are the 100,000 jobs Brownback promised? What do we have to show for the $726 million in tax revenue we lost between 2012 and 2014?

Although Kansas has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, this was the case when Brownback was elected. Since then, the national unemployment rate has decreased by 46.2 percent while ours has only decreased by 40.6 percent. It’s difficult to see how Brownback considers this a success.

___

The Wichita Eagle, Aug. 29

Curb exports of college grads:

Exports are normally good for the state economy. But not when the exports are our college graduates.

That’s a growing problem in Kansas, as fewer people who graduate from in-state colleges or universities are choosing to remain in the state.

Why aren’t more staying? What can be done about it? Is Wichita State University a possible model?

Board of Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders discussed this problem at a regents workshop in Wichita earlier this month. He noted that in 2014, only 47 percent of the people who earned bachelor’s degrees five years earlier were still employed in Kansas. That’s down from 52 percent four years earlier, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

The decline is consistent for graduates of a technical and community college and those who earn a bachelor’s degree at a regents university. But the brain drain is worse at the graduate-school level. Only 45 percent of people earning master’s degrees and only one-third of those earning doctoral degrees were employed in Kansas in their first year after graduating, the Journal-World reported.

It’s unclear what’s causing the problem. Are graduates leaving because higher education isn’t aligned with the state’s economy (the degrees don’t match the job openings)? Or is the state’s economy and culture not providing the jobs, salaries and quality of life graduates are seeking?

Part of the problem is simply supply and demand.

“There is a war for talent nationally,” Flanders said. “And so college graduates are in high demand, and they’re recruited by companies outside of this state.”

That means Kansas has to work harder to retain its talent.

Wichita has grappled with this challenge for some time. It wants to attract and retain more young adults, particularly creative college graduates. That’s why it has invested in quality-of-life issue such as downtown redevelopment and bike paths and is trying to make Wichita more supportive of young entrepreneurs.

Flanders also pointed to WSU’s efforts to connect students with Kansas employers while they’re still in college. He noted how private companies are moving to WSU’s Innovation Campus so they can utilize university researchers and employ students.

“Students are actually working while they’re going to college, and then they’re connected to a company before they ever graduate, which has really been shown to increase the number that stay and work for that company,” Flanders said.

But addressing this challenge extends beyond university campuses and needs to include businesses, the public and the state’s political climate.

Is Kansas welcoming to young adults? Does it value education, the arts and diversity? What messages are state and local governments sending?

The state’s economy needs to offer good jobs. But the state also needs to be a place where our college graduates want to live, not where they can’t wait to leave.

___

The Hutchinson News, Aug. 26

Brownback wants to hear about education, so tell him:

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said this week that he’s interested in hearing what the public thinks about the way Kansas public schools are financed, which immediately was met roundly with skepticism and criticism.

And while that’s not without merit - Brownback, after all, has been vocal about his designs for public education - those who question his motives might better spend their energy providing the governor with sound information about the importance of public education throughout the state and the ways in which it could operate with a more secure finance model.

It might be difficult for some, but it’s worth giving the governor the benefit of the doubt and believing that he might genuinely want to gather public input. If his statement lacks authenticity, those who were skeptical will have lost nothing, yet they will have seized upon the governor’s rare openness to share their own perspectives about the state of education in Kansas.

And there is a problem in education that desperately warrants examination. For the better part of 30 years, the Kansas Legislature and the state’s schools have been embroiled in a war of litigation. The state’s courts repeatedly have been forced to settle the matter, and that has created great conflict between the courts and the Legislature, culminating this year in an organized effort to unseat the justices who serve on the Kansas Supreme Court.

No one benefits from such a protracted and contentious fight - not lawmakers, the governor, the courts, the schools and certainly not the state’s public school students. Schools operate in an uncertain budget environment and under the constant threat of a change to the state’s finance formula. Lawmakers often must delay their work on the state’s budget pending a ruling from the court. Even then, as was the case this year, lawmakers are forced to return to a special session to address a court-ordered spending shortfall. Meanwhile, governors are forced to oversee such chaos and are tasked with trying to provide the leadership needed to find a solution, which is always temporary.

And the state’s students - those children who will one day soon hold positions of authority - are caught in the crossfire. Their learning takes place in schools that are living hand-to-mouth and by teachers who are weary of being painted as villains in a hyperbolic political game.

So, even if Brownback’s claim is disingenuous, it’s not an excuse to deny input on the topic. On the contrary, it’s the perfect opportunity to fill the governor’s mansion with reasoned appeal and sound information that, if heard, could move all parties closer to establishing a longer-term and more sound solution to one of the most critical functions of state government.


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