- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Wichita Eagle, March 25

School funding plan timely, lacking

The GOP-led Legislature gets points for urgency in passing a school funding bill before adjourning its regular session Thursday - and for setting aside its baseless animosity for the Kansas Supreme Court long enough to respond at all.

Assuming Gov. Sam Brownback signs the bill, Kansans soon will know whether it fixes what the court ruled to be unconstitutionally inequitable funding among districts, and relieves the threat of a court-ordered shutdown of schools July 1.

That seems unlikely, as the plan merely reshuffles and renames existing funding.

The bill adds just $2 million statewide for the next fiscal year, compared with estimates that fully funding the old equalization formula would take $38 million. Labeling money as “hold harmless” aid doesn’t make it so, especially with districts looking at slashing budgets or raising local property taxes to cope with past legislative actions.

The Wichita school district, which is considering up to $30 million in budget cuts for next school year, would get no extra state funding per this plan. An earlier House proposal would have provided the district about $10 million in additional funding and tax relief.

The bill also deserved more time for lawmakers’ and stakeholders’ scrutiny than it received. That was just 48 hours from introduction to passage, though the court had issued its ruling six weeks earlier. House members could only vote up or down, with no ability to offer amendments on the floor. Big issues like school finance deserve better lawmaking than that.

Meanwhile, the much bigger part of the schools lawsuit involving adequacy of funding is pending, and the Legislature has put off crafting a school finance formula to replace the one repealed last year.

At least lawmakers recognized the need to make an effort to answer the court on its equity ruling - and in March. But expect them to have to tackle the issue again in May or later.

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The Lawrence Journal-World, March 27

Problems with mental health care in Kansas go well beyond one hospital’s mishandling of a case.

A shortage of mental health facilities in Kansas is placing new pressures on some small hospitals that already are struggling to survive.

The problem is illustrated by a recent situation at Emporia’s Newman Regional Health, which is being threatened with a cutoff of Medicare and Medicaid funding because of its handling of a case involving a patient in need of mental health treatment. The hospital’s actions may have fallen short in this case, but at least some of the problem lies with the fact that Newman and other small Kansas hospitals don’t have enough resources and options to properly care for some of the patients who come to their emergency rooms.

According to news reports, a patient came to the Newman emergency room on Sept. 24, 2015, seeking treatment for chest pain and suicidal thoughts. A staff member of the Mental Health Center of East Central Kansas determined the patient qualified for inpatient mental health treatment, and three hospitals that provide that kind of care were contacted. All three declined to take the patient because they didn’t have space and because the patient’s chest pain might have indicated a cardiac problem.

Newman staff conducted suicide checks on the patient until the next day then discharged the patient with the understanding that someone from the mental health center was taking him/her to one of the hospitals that had been contacted. However, that hospital said it hadn’t been notified of the transfer and didn’t have space available. Details about what happened to the patient after the failed transfer aren’t available.

Federal law bars hospitals from discharging a patient with an unstable emergency medical condition - either mental or physical - so the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services intervened. Newman now is waiting to learn whether the CMS will conclude that the hospital has successfully corrected its procedures to prevent future problems. If not, Newman’s Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements could be cut off, a crippling blow for a small Kansas hospital.

Newman is doing its best to comply, but it’s not easy to cope with the new pressures it faces. In a prepared statement, Newman CEO Robert Wright, said because of waiting lists at inpatient psychiatric hospitals in Kansas, “many rural hospitals like ours are in the position of trying to care for mental health patients in emergency rooms and other inpatient and outpatient settings not intended for that purpose while waiting for the next available psychiatric bed.”

A representative of the Kansas Hospital Association confirmed that several member hospitals have reported some mental health patients remaining, sometimes for days, in hospital emergency departments while they wait for an inpatient psychiatric bed to become available. Small hospitals don’t have the resources to provide inpatient mental health care and they have nowhere to send these patients, so they are doing the best they can.

Newman hospital’s treatment of the patient in September may not have been good enough, but simply punishing the hospital for a problem that has its roots in state policy that has drastically reduced treatment facilities for people with serious mental illness doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

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The Hutchinson News, March 24

‘Religious freedom’ bill allows discrimination at public colleges

Too many people have a backward understanding of what religious freedom means. They go looking for violations of religious freedom and, not finding them, make up scary scenarios imagining a way Americans will be prohibited from practicing their religion.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, for example, signed a bill last week the Legislature delivered to him in the name of religious freedom. It’s completely unnecessary, but legislators point to one time at Washburn University in Topeka 12 years ago when someone unwelcome showed up with the Book of Mormon at a Christian student organization.

So this is what our legislators do: Create a new law to respond to one minor incident years ago. Kind of like lawmakers and the secretary of state changed the whole way Kansans vote because of a couple random examples - an infinitesimal percentage of millions of votes cast - when people who weren’t legal citizens or properly registered cast ballots.

The “religious freedom” bill, now law, forbids public colleges and universities from requiring student religious organizations to accept members who don’t adhere to the group’s core beliefs.

The bill “preserves intellectual diversity and religious liberty by allowing student clubs and organizations to determine the membership of their own groups,” Brownback said.

In actuality, the law does the opposite. Religious liberty means an environment where people have the freedom to practice their faith, but rather than remove discrimination this law allows it. And it narrows intellectual diversity - in the very places where we should be encouraging diversity of thought and expression.

Besides, campus religious groups already operated with the freedom to have membership requirements, including religious affiliation and beliefs. Those that did just chose not to seek official university recognition or money.

That’s what freedom is all about. The Founding Fathers wanted a country that not only provided freedom to practice one’s faith but that didn’t establish a state religion, which is why we can’t use public money for such purposes as exclusive religious organizations.

But this is where politicians are constitutionally backward on freedom of religion. And it’s why concerns that any religious liberties are being taken away are bogus.

Laws such as this take away liberty by actually sanctioning religious discrimination. And, again, student religious groups independent of a public institution already have had the freedom to do what they want, just as every church on every street corner does.

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The Pittsburg Morning-Sun, March 24

Downtown development should move forward

When someone wants to bring a new development to town it’s good news. When someone wants to bring a $15 million project to town it behooves city officials to get behind it, providing it’s a good project.

So when the Pittsburg City Commission was considering last week committing $1.5 million from the city’s Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund to a redevelopment project downtown it was with bated breath we waited to see if they would get behind it.

They did.

The project is a no-brainer.

What developer the Vecino Group is proposing is to take four buildings - the National Bank building the one directly to the north and the two Crowell Pharmacy buildings directly across the street and turn the upper floors into student housing and the bottom floors into retail space (the pharmacy would remain.)

If it goes forward, and Vecino must still comes to terms with Pittsburg State University, which would be the anchor tenant in the development, between 100 and 110 students would be living right downtown, while the lower floors would be filled with a small business incubator and commercial space.

It would be hard to overstate the impact this would have on Pittsburg’s downtown. Four aging and mostly empty buildings would once again be full. Young people would once again be living, working and playing downtown. It is inconceivable that new business would not follow behind them.

Of course the “nattering nabobs of negativism” will come out of the woodwork, decrying the use of “taxpayer funds” or “the impact to local landlords.” These amount to no more than protectionism, which never works and is always short-sighted. Cities which refuse to encourage outside investment shrink and die.

If we want this community to grow, an investment of $13.5 million outside dollars and the revitalization of the downtown area would seem a no-brainer.

The Morning Sun wholeheartedly supports this project and urges PSU and Vecino to quickly come to an agreement so this can move forward.

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