- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Topeka Capital-Journal, March 5

Brownback’s plan failing:

The “real live experiment” Gov. Sam Brownback concocted as a conservative economic blueprint for Kansas has adversely affected too many lives.

The time is now for Brownback to get real, disavow his pride and govern with common sense. Under his leadership, Kansas isn’t headed in the right direction.

This plea comes from a newspaper that endorsed Brownback’s re-election bid for governor in 2014. At that point, The Topeka Capital-Journal concluded it was too soon to declare that Brownback’s economic plan wouldn’t work.

Not anymore. Evidence is abundantly clear.

Had the governor demanded a stair-stepped tax reduction program, with smaller cuts imposed gradually, his tax revisions would have been implemented at a pace the state budget could handle. Spending could have been cut gradually to more easily match losses in revenue.

Instead, a massive decline in revenue makes it impossible to compose a stable budget. Public schools lack necessary funding. The state highway system has been robbed of funds to fix shortfalls. Public safety has even been affected with job reductions in the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Those who believe the state has a vested interest in funding university and technical colleges now watch as those institutions face cuts. Those who believe people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities deserve compassionate help are appalled by limitations imposed on services.

Yet Brownback won’t back down from his cornerstone policy, which eliminated state income taxes for 330,000 physicians, dentists, lawyers, farmers and other business owners, and also lowered the individual income tax rates on Kansans.

“This is an economic problem, not a tax policy problem,” Brownback said defiantly after yet another revenue crash in February stemmed from surprisingly shallow tax receipts from corporations, individuals and general sales tax.

Brownback deserves credit for some measures he has advanced as governor, some of which were thoughtful and overdue. He developed a plan for extending the Ogallala Aquifer, the lifeline for western Kansas farmers. He also invested, quite wisely, in technical education.

Yet his vision for fiscal policy has been devastating, and has sometimes included methods usually not associated with conservatives.

Huge risks were taken with the state’s finances, including a $1 billion loan to play the stock market and allow for payments into the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System to be skipped. Last year, $400 million was borrowed to divert more cash into keeping state government operations afloat. That figure represented about $150 million more than legislators thought was under consideration.

As revenue shortfalls persist, and the outlook for the state grows bleaker, Brownback and his staff usually find someone, or something, to blame.

First, it was President Barack Obama because, well, if the campaign rhetoric works on voters, why not attach the same blame to failing tax revenue? Some sort of federal tax change also has been mentioned, as well as a slow national economy and a weak regional economy.

The excuses, however, grow old, especially when basic state services are at risk.

This isn’t the executive leadership Kansans expected when they voted for Brownback in 2010. He won with 63 percent of the vote then. In 2014, he won with 49 percent. To Brownback, however, that was a mandate to punch the pedal on his fiscal plan.

Oh yeah, the plan was called an experiment.

Whatever the terminology, it failed.

Brownback, whose popularity rating is the worst of any governor in America, must realize this and reverse course before additional damage proves irreparable.


The Manhattan Mercury, March 6

If you can’t beat ‘em, impeach ‘em:

The conservative Republicans who control the Kansas Legislature and the governor’s office won’t be happy until they also control the Kansas Supreme Court.

There is no other explanation for a bill the Senate Judiciary Committee considered Thursday that would create new grounds to impeach Supreme Court justices. Not only does the bill not pertain to legislators and other state officials, it even excludes appellate and other judges. It targets Supreme Court justices.

The most conspicuous offensive ground for impeachment would be for usurping the Legislature. That is intended solely to intimidate justices from ruling that any acts of the Legislature are unlawful. This would leave no check on the Legislature’s errors or excesses - no entity that could hold the Legislature accountable to the Kansas Constitution, which has been necessary in recent years. The Legislature and governor could do whatever they want with impunity.

State Sen. Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican, supports the bill. He cited several recent rulings in which he said the Supreme Court exceeded its authority. Foremost among them were the Supreme Court’s rulings that the Legislature’s school funding laws violated the state Constitution, even recently setting a deadline to make funding equitable. The Supreme Court also overturned as unconstitutional a law that changed the way chief district court judges are chosen.

“Courts have the ability to harm society with their decisions,” Sen. Holmes said. “And impeachment was what our founders intended to be a check and a balance on an unchecked system, or what has evolved into an unchecked system.”

What Sen. Holmes doesn’t realize is that the state Supreme Court is protecting Kansans from acts of the Legislature that are illegal and harm society. Should this bill become law, it will be the Legislature and governor that usurp the authority of the Supreme Court - and operate unchecked.

Among other grounds for impeachment would be discourteous behavior, reckless conduct and personal misconduct. Before Kansas lawmakers even consider impeaching a member of the state’s highest court for those subjective offenses, they ought to take a look at their own behavior.

Pedro Irigonegary, an attorney involved in some of the cases Sen. Holmes cited, testified that the bill itself violates the separation of powers. “The bill’s motivation should be seen for what it is. It’s a power grab. It’s an attempt to control every aspect of our government…”

This is at least the Legislature’s third attempt to weaken the Supreme Court. Earlier this session, a proposal for a constitutional amendment to change the way justices are selected failed in the House of Representatives. Last year, the Legislature gave itself the authority to cut judicial funding statewide if the Supreme Court ruled a 2014 law unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court did just that, lawmakers wisely repealed the funding threat.

If they could set their egos aside and realize the harm this latest venture would cause, they would drop it and realize they won’t have a conflict with the Supreme Court if they heed the Constitution.


The Wichita Eagle, March 3

Plans to lower food sales tax face hurdles:

State leaders at least are talking about reducing the food sales tax burden.

Too bad the state’s finances are so precarious that the Legislature and governor are unlikely to do the right thing right away, which would be exempting food from sales taxes with the same zeal and certainty with which they exempted nonwage business income from state income taxes.

To its shame, and unlike most states, Kansas taxes food purchased at grocery stores at the full sales tax rate, which was hiked from 6.15 to 6.5 percent last year to cover a budget shortfall. Between the statewide rate and their local sales taxes, some Kansans now pay the highest sales taxes on food in the nation as much as 9 and 10 percent.

But the state needs every penny it gets from the 6.5 percent statewide rate to cover the budget, especially after February’s tax collections came in $53 million less than estimated. Every 1-cent cut in the sales tax on food would cost about $66 million in revenue.

To the credit of its sponsor, Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, one proposed remedy to the food tax problem would pay for itself. House Bill 2444, which has been promised a House hearing, would cut grocery taxes to 2.6 percent while ending the unfair exemption of state income tax enjoyed by 330,000 business owners since Brownback’s 2012 tax policy. Its problem is that Brownback has threatened to veto any attempt to roll back his signature business tax cut.

A more politically viable idea is a constitutional amendment to reduce the food sales tax rate to 4 percent in 2017 and 2 percent in 2018 before zeroing it out in 2019. Its sponsors include Sens. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, and Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita. But deferring to voters on food sales tax is a political stunt and irresponsible, in the absence of a plan for how the state budget could afford estimated loss of $350 million annual revenue after the amendment’s inevitable passage.

Last week Brownback said of proposals to eliminate the food tax: “I’ve been open to it, but you have to pay for it.”

He suggested a new sales tax rebate for low-income Kansans (an old one was replaced by an income tax credit for lower-income households that doesn’t benefit anyone too poor to owe income taxes).

“You’d be better off going off with some sort of rebate program, low-income rebate, on food sales than doing it across the board,” Brownback said.

The rebate’s revival would be better than the status quo. But advocates shouldn’t give up until Kansas’ food sales tax is gone.


The Hutchinson News, March 4

A step in the right direction for streams, rivers:

Sadly, the majority of the streams and rivers in Kansas aren’t fit to fish in, drink from or boat in. That was the finding in 2012 when the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said 75 percent of the state’s rivers and streams are “impaired.”

That impairment may be from cedar tree invasion soaking up groundwater, sedimentation or chemical runoff from rural and urban areas. Regardless of the problem, very little, if anything, is being done to stop the degradation or correct the problems.

That was until the Nature Conservancy received a $2 million grant from the David T. Beals III Charitable Trust, which will be used to start a new healthy streams initiative to be named after Beals. Much work has to be done and many questions answered, said Rob Manes, state director of the Conservancy.

“No one has taken a comprehensive look at it,” Manes said. “How do we protect the streams and how do we recover those that need recovered?”

The process will start with hiring a director for the program. That person is expected to build relationships with farmers, ranchers, state agencies, universities and municipalities. Hopefully that will start the process of long-term and large-scale protection of the pristine streams still left and start the recovery of those that are degraded.

Education will be a cornerstone of the effort. That means for all Kansans. It’s not just a rural or urban problem, it’s both. Dangerous chemical runoffs occur from both areas, and it’s imperative that all residents understand their roles in what ends up in streams and rivers.

With the $2 million leg-up from the Beals trust, the Conservancy will be able to seek other private and public resources to join the fight to preserve, protect and rejuvenate the many miles of streams and rivers that run through and are so important to the state.

The start-up fund, the largest in the Kansas Conservancy’s history, is just a drop in the bucket toward the work that needs to be done for water. But at least it’s a start on something that should have been started long ago.

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