- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Wichita Eagle, Dec. 11

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, was justified in raising concerns last week about the processing of child-abuse reports. It is one of many recent concerns about state social services that lawmakers and the Brownback administration need to address.

Ward, the newly elected House minority leader, called for action after the Topeka Capital-Journal obtained an internal e-mail from a family preservation services manager at the Kansas Department for Children and Families. The Sept. 22 e-mail said that the Kansas Protection Report Center was “currently experiencing a backlog in processing new reports of abuse or neglect, due to a severe staffing issue.”

A former employee of a DCF contractor also told the Capital-Journal that the report center had been backed up over the past year. She said she often was put on hold for 10 to 15 minutes, then told to leave a message - and sometimes didn’t receive a call back for days.

Last fall, a top law enforcement representative told lawmakers that the 24-hour hotline was frequently not answered. He also said police officers and sheriff’s deputies have trouble reaching social workers and their supervisors by phone.

DCF denies that there is a backlog, though it acknowledged that employees struggled to keep up with a large increase in calls in September, and that 10 of 47 intake positions are vacant. All total, DCF had 463 staff positions open earlier this month and has an annual turnover rate of 18.9 percent, the Capital-Journal reported.

The report center is just the latest concern about the child-welfare system and other state services.

- State auditors reported in July that DCF failed to ensure safety of children in foster care. This followed complaints last year that DCF discriminates against same-sex couples.

- National Public Radio reported recently that thousands of Kansans with intellectual and development disabilities are waiting seven years to receive in-home services.

- A recent analysis of KanCare determined that the privatized Medicaid program delivered on cost-cutting promises but not on quality of care.

- The Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas is calling for major reforms of the state’s overwhelmed mental health system, including an expansion of regional crisis intervention centers.

- The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services announced recently it was reducing funding for residential psychiatric care of children.

- Despite objections raised last legislative session, state officials recently requested proposals to privatize Osawatomie State Hospital, one of two state-run psychiatric facilities. Osawatomie was decertified last year because of noncompliance with federal regulations.

State officials regularly downplay and dismiss such concerns, including state audits. It’s up to state lawmakers to demand action.

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Lawrence Journal-World, Dec. 9

Give “Rise Up, Kansas” credit - at least the group has offered a plan to address the state’s budget issues. That’s more than anyone else can say for now.

That won’t last. More plans are coming, including Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal, due in January, that isn’t likely to look anything like what Rise Up, Kansas put forward Wednesday.

Rise Up, Kansas is a coalition of state lobby groups: the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, Kansas Action for Children, the Kansas National Education Association, the Kansas Organization of State Employees and the Kansas Contractors Association.

On Wednesday the group called for increasing taxes by just over $1 billion in order to balance the budget, increase funding for public schools and restore funding for the state highway program. The plan would reverse income tax cuts Brownback pushed through in 2012 and 2013 and raise motor fuel taxes by 11 cents a gallon to restore funding for the state highway program.

Rise Up, Kansas said the income tax changes would raise an estimated $820 million a year for the state general fund starting in July, while the motor fuel tax would raise another $197 million a year for highways and other transportation projects.

The plan calls for closing the so-called LLC loophole that exempts farmers and business owners from state income taxes altogether, and ending the so-called “march to zero” that automatically lowers income tax rates whenever state revenues grow beyond a set limit

“The last years can only be described as a senseless era of crisis,” said Duane Goossen of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. “We made a dangerous gamble on a tax plan without any evidence that it would work, and we lost.”

Evidence supports Goossen’s assessment. The state’s tax policies have not produced the economic growth that Brownback and others promised. In fact, Kansas has lagged the rest of the nation in job creation, employment and income growth. In the meantime, the state’s coffers have been depleted as tax revenues consistently have fallen short of projections, meaning massive cuts to state spending still haven’t been enough to get the budget into the black.

It would be naïve to think the Rise Up, Kansas plan is going to be the strategy that ultimately gets adopted by Brownback and the Legislature, but give the group credit for starting the conversation and putting on the table tax policy changes that absolutely should be debated in 2017.

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Pittsburg Morning Sun, Dec. 10

In January a new Legislature will begin its session and Crawford County has returned one incumbent, State Sen. Jake LaTurner, and sent one new face, State Rep. Monica Murnan - one Republican and one Democrat - to Topeka.

Forthwith we have some suggestions for them when the session begins.

First the state budget. We are once again staring down the barrel of a multi-hundred million dollar budget hole which must be filled. We once again are looking at projections from State Budget Director Shawn Sullivan’s office which have been wildly inaccurate.

We were hopeful that Gov. Sam Brownback’s experiment in low taxes would be successful. We certainly do not want to see more money taken out of the hands of Kansas taxpayers, believing that individuals have a better idea how to spend their money than government. But the experiment has failed. Between a sluggish economy and revenue reductions which were not coupled with concomitant spending cuts Kansas remains in dire financial straits. Neither Brownback nor Sullivan have been willing to admit this, which is why we called for their resignation earlier this year.

We now call on the new Legislature - and our local legislators in particular - to find a solution. That may mean higher taxes - so be it. This path has proven unsuccessful, it’s time to find a new one.

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Second, school funding. The Legislature must work with the school districts and the courts to find a solution to the problem. More money is not necessarily the answer and the school funding formula is fatally flawed. Instead of a showdown with the districts and the courts every year the Legislature should work with all parties to find a formula which works both for the state budget and to provide the best possible education to Kansas youth. But this means both sides must be willing to give and, for many years now, neither side has been willing to do so. So we call on the districts to come to the table with open minds and a willingness to understand that schools are not the only budget priority the state faces.

Third, speaking of budget priorities and filling holes - KDOT. It is time to sequester funding for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

For too long the Legislature has fixed it’s budget woes by robbing from KDOT. Kansas has - depending on which metric is used - either the best or the second best roads in the nation. Kansans are justly proud of our infrastructure. However, that infrastructure is starting to fail, and years of robbing KDOT Peter to pay Budget Paul have led to innumerable and intolerable delays to projects such as the widening of Highway 69. Many areas of Kansas - Crawford County included - are impoverished and projects like Highway 69 can bring new life to those areas. But when the Legislature regards the KDOT budget as its own personal petty cash drawer that new life is strangled aborning. It’s time to stop. We call upon the Legislature to pass legislation putting KDOT funding off limits to such internal borrowing.

These are only a few of the things the Legislature will be working on in 2017, but we think these are the highest priorities they will face. We call on both Republicans and Democrats to put ideology aside and engage the tough pragmatism for which Kansans are famous, and find some workable solutions to these and the other issues which Kansas faces.

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Salina Journal, Dec. 10

The new leaders in the Kansas Legislature face no small challenges, but they started by striking the right tone.

Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, was elected speaker of the Kansas House on Monday, and Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, was re-elected to serve as Senate president.

Their reward? Ryckman and Wagle are charged with developing a strategy to deal with a $350 million hole in the state budget that is expected to grow to more than $500 million in 2017. An impending decision from the Kansas Supreme Court is likely to require the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on public K-12 education.

And amid the fiscal challenges, it isn’t clear that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is ready to work with the legislative leadership. Brownback, widely blamed for pushing tax policies that led to the state’s budget woes, has said he will not submit a plan to address the budget woes until January, and even then, he doesn’t see the budget problem as his responsibility.

Ryckman replaces outgoing Speaker Ray Merrick, a strong Brownback ally known for punishing those who opposed him and for limiting the number of bills that were debated on the House floor.

In his remarks after being elected speaker, Ryckman at least sounded like someone willing to take a different, more collaborative approach.

“I believe if you look at the members of our state and the members of our caucus today, they did select a broad variety of individuals that I believe have come here to do the state’s business and to get us on the right path to restore a little civility and accountability to our process,” Ryckman said. “It’s all-hands-on-deck, and if someone’s willing to find a way to get to a yes (vote), we’re definitely willing to listen.”

Wagle is not new to Senate leadership. She was Senate president when many of the state’s budget problems came to be. But the August Republican primaries, in which several moderates won contests over hardline Brownback conservatives, got Wagle’s attention. In October, Wagle called a news conference with 25 other GOP senators and candidates and acknowledged that she had heard the voters’ anger on the campaign trail. The group pledged that, if elected, they would address the state’s budget crisis even if it meant reversing some of the tax policies that Brownback had championed and that many of them had supported.

Like Ryckman, Wagle struck an inclusive tone Monday.

“I have never squashed debate,” Wagle said. “We need to recognize that we are a diverse group of people from all walks of life who have made a tremendous sacrifice to put their name on the ballot in a year that we know is going to be very difficult to govern.”

The makeup of the Legislature in 2017 will be different from that of the past six years. The 2016 election made clear that the voters aren’t happy with the direction the state is headed. The challenges are as big as they ever have been and will require compromise and collaboration to solve. It remains to be seen if Ryckman and Wagle can offer such consensus-building leadership in 2017, but at least they sounded the part Monday.


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