- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hutchinson News, July 15

Where the state has declined to take assertive action to save the groundwater resources in western Kansas, two farmers have taken the initiative and shown everyone else that conservation is the only way.

In a small area in the Colby area of northwest Kansas, the farmers voluntarily have pledged to reduce their water usage by 20 percent for at least five years. And the initial results are promising: In the so-called Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, state officials report that the water table, which had been dropping rapidly each year for decades, is now showing a slight increase.

It’s the first of its kind in Kansas. But we are going to need many more of them if the state continues to forgo its responsibility to regulate water usage in a part of the state where water rights were way over-appropriated years ago.

That miscalculation opened the doors to extensive irrigation, allowing farmers to grow corn and other water-intensive crops in a region where the annual precipitation otherwise wouldn’t support it. But the vast underground ocean known as the Ogallala Aquifer has been steadily drying up as a result and now can’t be relied on as a long-term water resource.

One way or another, there will be a day of reckoning. Sheridan County farmer Roch Meier would rather confront that reality sooner than later.

“I’d rather irrigate 10 inches a year for 30 years than put on 30 inches for 10 years,” Meier said. “I want it for my grandkids.”

It’s not the only conservation measure that smart, forward-thinking farmers are taking.

They also are planting more drought-tolerant corn and other crops.

Western Kansas could use more environmentally conscious farmers, and the state needs to aid, if not prod, in ramping up LEMAs and other water conservation programs.

Incentives and voluntary behavior modification always are preferable to government mandates and regulation.

But the state needs to be ready to step in if more farmers don’t see the wisdom of what Meier and others are doing.


Wichita Eagle, July 13

Some legislative incumbents and candidates act as if the governor’s budget-balancing is just responsible fiscal management, without pain or other consequences. Those on the front line of community mental health in Kansas have a different view.

“The community mental health centers have taken one devastating hit after another over the last year,” Kyle Kessler, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, said in a statement last week.

The group, which represents 26 centers in the state, estimates a $30 million loss of funding statewide for the new fiscal year. Sedgwick County’s Comcare is implementing strategies to deal with a revenue decrease of about $3.5 million.

The Brownback administration’s 4 percent cut to Medicaid reimbursements as of July 1 is among the causes for concern. But the state also ended a short-lived “health homes” pilot program that had coordinated care for some mentally ill people with chronic medical problems, and a Medicaid mental health screening program (objected to by federal officials) that aimed to guide some patients into community-based rather than inpatient treatment.

The association warned that “the reduction in treatment and staff will result in more state mental health hospital admissions, emergency room visits and quite likely in more interaction with law enforcement.” Comments from some center leaders underscore the seriousness:

- “Over the last several years it’s seemed to me that we have had a slow dismantling of the mental health system across Kansas,” Tim DeWeese, executive director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, told the Kansas Health Institute News Service.

- “We need to look at restoring some of the cuts to mental health centers that have taken place over the last decade, whether that is restoring mental health reform contract funding or expanding treatment to persons through expanding Medicaid,” Mike Garrett, CEO of Horizons Mental Health Center in Hutchinson, said in the association’s statement.

- “We’ve eliminated some positions, and we’ve realigned other staff. This is a real penny-wise, pound-foolish situation,” Dave Johnson, CEO of Lawrence’s Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, which is losing more than $1 million in Medicaid funding, told the Lawrence Journal-World.

Other problems with the state’s mental health safety net have been well-documented in recent years. Those include the wait time for admittance and the loss of federal Medicare certification over safety problems at Osawatomie State Hospital and the understaffing at Larned State Hospital.

State and local policymakers - and voters - should heed the association’s call to examine the ramifications of funding cuts to their community mental health systems, and especially to the seriously mentally ill Kansans they serve.


Topeka Capital-Journal, July 17

After he signed a batch of new welfare restrictions into law in May, Gov. Sam Brownback touted his administration’s continuing effort to reduce government dependency: “It’s been very positive in its results. It’s helped people get out of poverty, it’s helped people have more income, and in some cases it’s helping people get back their dignity.”

One of the ways Brownback aims to help Kansans “get back their dignity” is the Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) mentoring program.

The program was established in January to link volunteer mentors with Kansans who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The mentors are expected to provide TANF recipients with career advice, information about educational opportunities, a “constructive example,” personal reinforcement and other forms of support.

Although the Brownback administration hopes for the participation of 1,100 mentors, 115 have signed up. And there are still almost nine times more mentors than mentees - only 13 TANF recipients have agreed to take part in the program since it was launched six months ago.

This disappointing level of involvement prompted the Department of Children and Families (which administers the HOPE mentoring program) to suggest making it mandatory for welfare recipients. While Brownback is right to prefer “incentivizing the mentoring programs rather than mandating them,” he should reconsider whether this program and his other welfare initiatives are effective substitutes for cash assistance to impoverished Kansas families.

Since Brownback took office, the lifetime limit on TANF benefits has been steadily eroded - from five years in 2011 to two years in 2016 (a 12-month extension is available to families in extreme circumstances). Since 2011, the average number of families receiving assistance has dropped from 15,077 to 5,391.

However, the percentage of Kansas children in poverty has remained roughly the same since 2011 and less than 10 percent of the people who leave cash assistance programs do so to take jobs. This is why Brownback can’t keep pointing to the number of people who no longer receive TANF benefits as a victory in and of itself. His policies have ensured that there will be less people on the welfare rolls regardless of their reasons for leaving.

When Brownback signed the welfare cuts in May, he said his administration wanted to do more than simply get Kansans off public assistance - he said the objective was “to get people out of poverty.” Brownback’s welfare policies have failed to do this, and it’s time to try something new.


Lawrence Journal-World, July 17

Tuesday’s (July 12) action by the Kansas Rules and Regulations Board only formalized the two-tiered election system that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach already planned to implement for upcoming elections, but the board’s process still hit a sour note with many Kansans.

Notice of the 8 a.m. Tuesday meeting didn’t go out until late Monday afternoon. By 9 a.m. Tuesday, the board had approved Kobach’s plan to allow Kansans who registered at state motor vehicle offices but didn’t provide proof of citizenship to vote in federal elections but not local and state races. Unless the courts intervene, those voters will be required to cast provisional ballots in both the Aug. 2 primary and Nov. 8 election. The ballots they receive will include state and local races, but any votes they cast in those races will not be counted. Right now, about 17,000 Kansas voters are covered by the policy, but that number likely will increase significantly between now and November.

The Rules and Regulations Board is made up of representatives of the secretary of state, attorney general and Department of Administration, along with the chair and vice chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and Regulations. All five board members are Republicans, which raises some obvious questions about fairness.

The timing of Kobach’s request for board action also is questionable. The board is allowed to adopt temporary rules and regulations when there isn’t enough time before an election to go through the legislative process to adopt permanent regulations. Sen. Vicki Schmidt, who represented the attorney general on the board, questioned why Kobach’s office didn’t bring the election issue to the full Legislature during its sine die session or the special session on June 23-24. The federal court ruling to which Kobach is responding was issued in May, so there would have been enough time to let legislators weigh in on the issue instead of presenting it to the Rules and Regulations Board on an emergency basis. Schmidt was told that Kobach waited because the decision was being appealed.

Regardless of Tuesday’s action, the Kansas election laws will continue to evolve based on various court actions. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has set arguments for Aug. 23 on Kobach’s appeal of Judge Julie Robinson’s ruling saying that the federal “motor voter” law required that voters who register at motor vehicle offices be allowed to participate in federal elections. If Robinson’s ruling is overturned, Tuesday’s state action would be nullified, leaving those voters ineligible to vote in any election in Kansas.

If Robinson’s ruling is upheld, the proposed two-tiered election system still could face legal obstacles from the ruling by Shawnee County District Judge Franklin Theis that the state has no statutory authority to conduct a two-tiered election like the one the Rules and Regulations Board has approved. Kobach has appealed that ruling to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, the right of thousands of Kansans to vote in the upcoming elections remains in limbo. It’s unfortunate that instead of facilitating that right, state officials have created a system that is hampering Kansas voters and perhaps calling the integrity of Kansas elections into question.

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