- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Topeka Capital-Journal, May 14

As thousands of students in Kansas celebrate commencement this weekend, their younger peers are probably wondering if schools will even be open next year.

The Kansas Legislature cut $54 million from K-12 schools in March 2015. This deepened inequality across the state, as the money was siphoned from allocations for districts that are unable to raise as much local tax revenue as their wealthier counterparts. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the Gannon v. Kansas lawsuit - which was filed in 2010 over inadequate school funding - called this decision unconstitutional.

In February, the Kansas Supreme Court gave the Legislature until June 30 to equitably fund state schools under Article VI of the Kansas Constitution, which requires lawmakers to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” In its decision, the Supreme Court argued that the Legislature’s decision would “determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August for the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.”

The Legislature made its decision when it passed House Bill 2655 on March 24, but the Supreme Court remains dubious. Instead of directly committing more equity funds to poor districts, the legislation changes the way existing aid is calculated and disbursed. Under the new formula, 23 districts will get a small increase in funding, but it won’t be nearly as much as schools would have received if the full $54 million had been reallocated.

During a hearing on May 10, exasperated justices asked aggressive questions about the status of school funding in the state. Justice Dan Biles wondered how long schools would have to endure inadequate funding: “At what point does this process have to stop? How many years do we operate unconstitutionally before we say, you know, the music’s got to stop and we’ve got to quit dancing?” Justice Marla Luckert accused the Legislature of repackaging the status quo: “Why are we in any different situation than we were when we looked at this last time?”

The state’s solicitor general, Stephen McAllister, failed to provide compelling answers to these questions. He argued that the bill placed Kansas within a tolerable “band” of inequality. He asked the Supreme Court to “take the narrowest approach possible” in its ruling. He even admitted that the legislation didn’t offer a sustainable remedy for the funding shortfall: “This is basically a one-year solution.”

We agree with Justice Biles - how many one-year solutions will our schools receive in place of the funding they need? What will happen if the Supreme Court rules that overall education funding is inadequate, forcing the state to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars it doesn’t have? Instead of devising creative ways to sneak around this problem, the Legislature should work on fixing it.


Wichita Eagle, May 15

As they await a Kansas Supreme Court decision, K-12 public schools are in uncharted territory.

Wichita’s USD 259 has shaved two days off the year to save $400,000 while seeking $23 million in budget cuts for next fall. A southeast Kansas district went to a four-day week to finish the year. All districts are making contingency plans for a possible court-ordered shutdown July 1, and otherwise coping with the broken promise that the two-year block grants would provide stable, ample funding.

The potential system closure, though unthinkable and unlikely, still looms because the court has yet to rule on whether the Legislature satisfied its February order to make school funding equitable among property-rich and -poor districts.

School districts contend that House Bill 2655, which became law last month, is unconstitutional because it mostly redistributes flat funding using a less generous equalization formula.

Coming up with the $30 million or more needed to fully fund equalization across districts would be a problem for the state, should the court strike down HB 2655 with the expectation that the Legislature could try again before the court’s June 30 deadline. There is no extra money available because of the dramatic impact of Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature 2012 income tax cuts; the fiscal 2017 state budget doesn’t balance as it is, relying on him to make unspecified spending cuts.

In (the May 10) hearing before the Supreme Court, Wichita attorney Alan Rupe raised the possibility of the court effectively forcing money to be redirected to schools from other state services, while the state advocated some alternative to a shutdown to get by until the 2017 Legislature convenes in January.

The state’s idea of striking all districts’ local option budgets and forgoing supplemental state LOB aid would have the system statewide start the school year about $1 billion short. That would do grave harm to districts and students.

“We’re talking a matter of weeks that we’d be able to pay the bills and have the doors open,” said Wichita superintendent John Allison.

Dodge City superintendent Alan Cunningham said: “We might make it to Halloween.”

Even if the court blessed HB 2655, districts would still face immediate budget problems, because the block-grant plan did not account for higher enrollment and costs. Wichita teachers are being asked to agree to longer days and a shorter school year, or face the loss of librarians and other jobs and the outsourcing of custodial management.


Hutchinson News, May 14

Kansas leaders have had a hard time admitting they make mistakes, but sending someone to prison for a crime they didn’t commit is one we should ignore no longer.

Gov. Sam Brownback took a laudable first step toward helping prevent these kinds of errors this past week by signing a new law meant to limit false eyewitness identifications - a main culprit in wrongful convictions. But the state needs to go further for those it already has incarcerated under false pretenses.

The case of Hutchinson resident Floyd Bledsoe points out the need for Kansas to join the growing number of states with laws that compensate those who have wasted so many years of their lives because of errors, or even incompetence, by public officials.

Bledsoe spent 15 years locked up on a murder conviction for a crime to which his brother had confessed. Bledsoe filed suit in federal court this week against the authorities who put him behind bars. Because Kansas has no mechanism to compensate innocent people it sends to prison, this lawsuit is the only way Bledsoe can recoup some of what he lost.

Rep. Ramon Gonzalez, R-Perry, introduced HB 2611 this year in an effort to join the 30 states that do try to make up for years of wrongs. But like so many important issues facing Kansas, it died in committee. It simply became another example of a Legislature that has become more infamous for what it leaves on the table than what it accomplishes.

Committee members didn’t act because some felt the state already has a way for those who have claims against the state to seek damages — lawsuits. If Bledsoe’s suit goes forward, it could cost Kansas and Jefferson County millions.

Bledsoe, 39, was convicted of raping and killing 14-year-old Camille Arfmann in Oskaloosa. He was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he steadfastly denied committing. He was released in December.

It could be costly. Eddie Lowery, who spent 12 years in prison wrongly convicted of rape, received a settlement of $7.5 million from Riley County after being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003.

Gonzalez’s bill would pay someone such as Bledsoe the equivalent of 40 hours a week at minimum wage for each year he spent in prison. It would give those wrongfully convicted something to help them start their lives anew. It might even discourage lawsuits.

The federal government pays those who have been exonerated $63,000 for each year spent in prison, plus the same amount for each year spent on death row, under a law passed in 2004. Texas pays $80,000 a year spent in prison, plus an average lifetime annuity payment of $40,000 to $50,000.

Kansas is taking small steps. Brownback this week signed into law guidelines requiring law enforcement agencies to adopt best practices to help limit mistaken identification from eyewitnesses. Faulty eyewitness identification has been recognized as one of the biggest reasons innocent people get sent to prison. Kansas became one of 16 states to pass such legislation.

Still, another bill sponsored by Gonzalez, chief of police in Perry, would have required law enforcement agencies to record interrogations of suspects. Recording of interviews with suspects is another way experts say would cut down on wrongful convictions. It could have kept Bledsoe out of prison. Again, that bill (HB 2593) stalled.

Nationwide, 1,783 people have been exonerated of crimes since 1986, according to cases tracked by the University of Michigan Law School. Seven have been in Kansas. One is too many.

But police, prosecutors, judges and juries are all human, so they make mistakes. But these are the kind that take away years of a life that can’t be returned. Kansas needs to do more to make sure cases like Bledsoe’s don’t continue to cast shadows of doubt. We can give authorities the tools to help limit these errors.

The state also needs to take steps to provide help for those, like Hutchinson’s Bledsoe, who have already suffered the weight from faulty scales of justice.


Lawrence Journal-World, May 16

A tax dispute between the state of Kansas and Gene Bicknell involves more than whether the state owes the retired businessman a $50 million tax refund. It’s a matter of due process and fair play.

Bicknell, who opened his first Pizza Hut in Pittsburg in 1962, later founded National Pizza Co., which grew into the nation’s largest franchiser of Pizza Hut restaurants. He also was prominent in the Kansas Republican Party and sought the GOP nomination for governor in 1986 and 1994.

In the 1990s, Bicknell bought a home in Florida, and, in 2003, he contends he retired and moved to Florida. However, he retained ownership of the Kansas-based National Pizza Co. until 2006.

That is the crux of the dispute. For 2005 and 2006, Bicknell filed non-resident income tax returns in Kansas. Bicknell points to the fact that he not only had moved to Florida, but also had registered to vote, registered his car, opened bank accounts and obtained a driver’s license in Florida. Nonetheless, the Kansas Department of Revenue contends he was still a Kansas resident and was required to pay tax on his National Pizza Co. income at the rate for Kansas residents.

Bicknell appealed that decision to the governor-appointed Board of Tax Appeals, which sided with the state. He then took his case to the Kansas Court of Appeals, which said the BOTA had erred. The case went back to the BOTA, which appealed the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court, which has not ruled in the case.

In the meantime, legislative actions that could affect Bicknell’s case were underway. Last year, a law was passed that would allow Kansas taxpayers to appeal a BOTA decision in district court, where they could have a full “de novo” trial at which they could present evidence and testimony to support their cases. That seems only fair.

This year, however, the House sought to pull back that provision and make it apply only to property tax appeals, not appeals involving income or other taxes. Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, who served on the conference committee that produced the final version of the bill, said that change was rejected after stiff resistance from the Senate so the law would retain the language allowing income tax cases to be appealed in district court.

Bicknell blames the last-minute efforts to change this bill on Gov. Brownback and claims the governor may veto the bill because it does not change the appeals provision. The governor has not commented on the situation.

It would not be a particularly convenient time for the state to have to pay out a $50 million tax refund, but Bicknell deserves a fair decision in this case. If Bicknell owes the tax, he should pay it, but it’s simply not right for the state to use legislative maneuvering to try to usurp the right of Bicknell or other Kansas taxpayers to argue their cases in district court.

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