- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug. 12:

As Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer prepares to replace Gov. Sam Brownback - who is expected to become the Trump administration’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom - there has been considerable speculation about whether he would enter the 2018 gubernatorial race.

On Tuesday (Aug. 8), that speculation came to an end when Colyer announced that he’s running for governor: “It’s time for a new day in Kansas. It’s time to listen, to lead, and to bring people together. I am fully committed to doing the work necessary to win the 2018 race for governor, and today’s announcement is the first step toward that victory.”

Several observers and political opponents argue that Colyer’s announcement indicates his eagerness to dissociate himself from Brownback.

Bob Beatty is a political scientist at Washburn University, and he says Colyer is trying to assert his independence: “He’s arguing he’s not going to be an extension of the Brownback administration.” But as the longest-serving lieutenant governor in Kansas history, that’s exactly what he has been since January 2011. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, mocked Colyer for this conspicuous contradiction: “I laughed out loud when I saw his email, ‘a new day in Kansas.’ Because Jeff Colyer trying to run away from Sam Brownback is ridiculous. That would be like trying to run away from himself.”

Kansas Democratic Party Chairman John Gibson made the same point: “If there’s one thing that unites all Kansans, it’s that there’s no appetite for a third Brownback term. Voters aren’t going to entrust the job of rebuilding the state to the very same person who has spent the past seven years tearing it down.”

This is the perception Colyer is up against. Right now, Kansans have no reason to believe that they’ll be heralding a “new day” under his governorship. While his announcement was optimistic and inclusive, it didn’t tell us much about the sort of leader he’ll be. He may be reticent about Brownback, but we won’t know if he’s serious about working with the Legislature, unifying Kansans, etc. until we see how he behaves in office. Secretary of State Kris Kobach may be unpopular, but he has been transparent about his priorities. For example, he inexplicably thinks corruption and illegal immigration are two of the most serious problems our state faces. And he thinks the Legislature’s two-year, $1.2 billion tax increase is “disastrous.”

Unlike Kobach, Colyer is cryptic about the tax increase: “What’s happened has happened.” When someone asked Colyer if he would support a pay increase for corrections officers, he responded, “We’re going to be talking about policy issues at another time.” Although he has been a staunch opponent of expanding Medicaid in Kansas, he wouldn’t say whether he would support expansion if health care situation doesn’t change in Washington.

To be fair, Colyer just launched his campaign and Brownback is still the governor. We don’t expect him to have a fully developed platform or a crystallized idea of how he’s going to run the state. But it won’t be long before Kansans are demanding more than anodyne slogans about setting a “new tone” or embarking on a “new day.”

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Wichita Eagle, Aug. 8

Fourteen Kansas schools will be the faces of change in Kansas education a year from now. In nine years, the state hopes all schools will make similar redesigns to get a higher percentage of graduates ready to live and work in the middle class.

No wonder education officials call this a “moonshot” and use Mercury 7 space mission names for the project. It may be the greatest undertaking in Kansas education.

Kansas Department of Education officials Tuesday identified an elementary and secondary school in seven districts that will pilot the program beginning in 2018-19. Through an overhaul of the schools, the goal is to create more students who are ready for middle-class jobs by the time they reach 24.

“Businesses are telling us to be more adaptable and flexible,” education commissioner Randy Watson told The Eagle’s editorial board last week.

Schools will do so by making changes that can identify earlier a student’s area of interest and possible career path. Elementary educators may spend two or three years with a student, a teaching technique known as “looping.” In middle school and high school, Watson said, a student identified as wanting to help people may be directed toward nursing or teaching.

Once in high school, students may be challenged to think outside of the standard class that ends with an earned credit. Instead of a normal English grade, a student may be able to earn a similar credit by making a series of speeches over the course of a year.

Twenty-nine districts wanted to be in the first phase of the redesign. Each had to have buy-in from their school board, staff and teachers union.

Wellington and McPherson are the closest districts to Wichita on the front line of change. Sedgwick County’s only applicant was the Renwick district, made up of schools in Andale, Colwich and Garden Plain. Wichita and the bigger suburban districts that reach into the city limits for students did not apply.

There are questions associated with changing how Kansas kids are educated. Are the state’s highest achievers affected? Will colleges look the same way at a student’s transcript? Can a student be impacted if he or she wants to change paths a year or two before graduation?

Questions worth answering, but the data shows this chance needs to be taken. A Georgetown University study says 71 percent of all Kansas jobs in 2020 will need some level of college degree. The most recent numbers show 44 percent of Kansas high school graduates go to college. Watson wants that number at 70 percent soon.

The Kansas Department of Education has made a strong move toward a needed change. Without any increase in the department’s budget, it banks on an overhaul of teaching philosophy to get students closer to a future that cements them in the middle class, if not higher.

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Salina Journal, Aug. 7

Sam Williams, the former mayoral candidate from Wichita who now heads the state’s Department of Revenue, has sent out a column of old worn half-truths and falsehoods that malign the Kansas Legislature for snatching the state back from the abyss of bankruptcy. Other officials also have begun spreading falsehoods, pretense ginned up by the bedraggled refugees trudging along Sam Brownback’s pitted path to prosperity, one that has gone to weed.

Williams begins by discussing a “$1.2 billion tax increase” approved in June by the Legislature as though it were a virus, ebola taxation destined to infect the bank accounts and business ledgers of all Kansans. His column takes a fatherly, advisory tone with warnings to make sure the infection is stilled; he warns of new tax withholding tables for employers, of retroactive levies. “Additionally, I recommend talking to your tax preparer to ensure the additional money withheld is sufficient to address the increased amount you owe under the Legislature’s new law.”

It’s as though the new law were nuclear, and citizens should prepare to duck and cover.

In fact, the legislation is less a tax increase than a tax recovery. It reinstates a three-bracket income tax and restarts a flow of reasonable funding for local schools. It was an historic accomplishment, one that pulls Kansas from a fall into bankruptcy, the shuttering of its educational system and the starvation of social services. In the nick of time, we were spared more of the governor’s ruinous “Glide Path to Zero” income taxes for the wealthy, for favored farms and businesses.

The recovery reverses the catastrophic tax cuts five years ago that bled the treasury dry, left the state with a billion-dollar operating deficit and an emaciated highway fund. Meanwhile the state suffered three credit downgrades; a state hospital lost $1 million every month in federal aid because it was not funded adequately; local schools were wretchedly under-financed with a funding formula left vacant. Colleges and universities were starved, left with outlandish tuition increases; teachers, administrators and professors fled the state for ones that welcomed and valued educators, not demeaned them. Local hospitals and clinics were shuttered or on life support for lack of funding. The list went on, all of it due to those tax cuts. Not even the diversion of a massive sales tax increase (2015) could stem the red ink.

Williams mentions the state’s life-saving tax recovery as though it were venom, the “largest tax increase in history,” one that “funds more than $200 million in new spending …” (It’s old spending, restarted.)

Williams’ anti-tax screed, foamed up in the guise of friendly advice from the revenue secretary, is a festering disservice to the citizenry. The Legislature did nothing more than restart the revenue stream that had been shut off a half-decade ago. This will barely cover the largest tax cuts in history, the ones that have left this state withered and gasping. We’re only returning to five years ago, and we have already lost a decade of competitive edge across the public and private sector. People don’t want to come to a place that’s let itself go, that has missing teeth, a vacant smile, a place gone to seed. We were nearly there. And we’ve a long route yet to recovery.

It may sound good to rail on about the evils of taxing and spending, or spread those savage superstitions that enliven campaign folders. But Kansas has learned first-hand that it’s one thing to vote for a place with no taxes, and quite another to live in one.

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Kansas City Star, Aug. 10

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle has rejected a call for a special legislative session to address the growing safety problems in the state’s prisons.

Wagle said she had recently toured the El Dorado Correctional Facility, where guards and inmates have suffered through a summer of unrest.

“I witnessed, firsthand, the struggles at the prison,” she said, “and firmly believe the Department of Corrections and the state can move forward to address these concerns without a special session.”

We disagree. A special legislative session could bring an immediate and necessary focus to the ongoing challenges in all of the state’s prisons.

There would be much to discuss.

Staff shortages continue to plague the El Dorado prison, as well as the facility in Lansing. Guards in El Dorado have worked extra shifts this year, an unfair imposition on them and a threat to safety. More than 100 correctional officer positions remain unfilled in Lansing, a 15 percent staffing shortfall.

Wagle and other lawmakers have called on Gov. Sam Brownback to immediately raise salaries, which start at around $30,000 annually. He should do that, but it won’t be enough.

Kansas, like other states, will have to figure out how to recruit guards, train them and keep them on the job. Higher salaries are just one part of the equation. A safe work environment and opportunities for advancement must be offered to employees as well.

The state must also review its prison operations. During her visit, Wagle was told some of the disruption in El Dorado was a result of transfers to the facility, double-bunking and newly transferred inmates acting out because family members can no longer visit as frequently.

Meanwhile, a representative of a state employees’ organization recently compared Lansing with a powder keg, “ready to explode.”

In all of this, Brownback has shown a disturbing lack of urgency - a strange response because the governor has in the past demonstrated serious concern for the well-bring of those on the wrong side of the law. He has visited prisons and talked with inmates.

A special session would demonstrate a recognition that Kansas prisons are reaching a crisis point. Lawmakers could work quickly to increase compensation for guards, then consider additional measures to attract new employees. They may also wish to review operations of the state’s penitentiaries.

An email inadvertently forwarded to The Star suggested political considerations may be playing a role in the reticence to call a special session. That would be disappointing. Kansas cannot wait for a major incident before it takes action.

And a special session is needed to address a specific and urgent issue such as this - unlike Missouri’s wholly unnecessary special legislative session to consider abortion legislation.

Lawmakers need not wait for the governor to act. The state’s statutes allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session with the agreement of two-thirds of its members.

Legislators should draft and sign such a petition. A short special session to address prison unrest is overdue.


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