- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Wichita Eagle, Feb. 26

The state nearly took a major step toward stabilizing its finances last week. But the obstinacy of Gov. Sam Brownback - and the abdication of leadership at a critical time by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita - prevented that progress.

If Brownback didn’t own the state’s budget problems before, he does now.

The week began with Brownback announcing at a Kansas Chamber of Commerce banquet that he planned to veto a bill that would reverse some of the state’s previous tax cuts. He then held a press conference Wednesday morning to make a public display of his veto.

But within hours, the Kansas House voted 85-40 to override that veto - a remarkable show of bipartisan resolve. That meant the fate of the bill rested with the Senate.

The Senate initially approved the tax bill with 22 votes. It needed an additional five votes to override - a challenge, but also reachable with some strong leadership by Wagle.

Wagle has been a vocal critic of Brownback’s budget and tax policies. She wrote in a recent commentary that his budget plan was “neither structurally sound nor fiscally conservative,” and she vowed not to “kick this can down the road any longer.”

Yet when it came time to step up and change course, Wagle - along with Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park - opposed the override. This even though calls from Wagle’s constituents ran 10 to one in support of the override, and Denning reportedly promised to vote for the override if it cleared the House.

In the end, the override attempt fell three votes short.

Wagle objected that the new income tax rates would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017. But lawmakers, including Wagle and Denning, have approved retroactive tax increases before.

Waiting until 2018 for the tax increases to go into effect makes it even more difficult to plug the state’s budget shortfall - which now totals about $900 million over the next 16 months.

Wagle and Brownback both expressed confidence that an alternative solution is possible. Perhaps so, but it is unclear what that would be.

What was particularly remarkable about this tax vote was the time it occurred and the amount of support it received. Typically, lawmakers refuse to make such tough decisions until the very end of the legislative session - and with the bare minimum of votes needed to pass.

In 2015, for example, the Legislature didn’t approve a tax plan until 4 a.m. on June 12 - the 113th day of the session. And that occurred only after threats and pleading by Brownback.

Having killed this bipartisan solution, the burden is now on Brownback and Wagle to deliver something better.


Hutchinson News, Feb. 24

Across the United States, democracy is taking place, as previously apathetic or disengaged residents decide to take an active role in their government, largely through attendance at congressional town hall meetings.

Now that people care enough to ask questions and compel lawmakers to do their work, it seems some members of Congress aren’t quite so interested in the sometimes ugly, unruly and uncontrollable American public.

Kansas is no exception. Both Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have missed out on scheduled town hall meetings where hundreds of constituents gathered to speak to the Washington, D.C., officials. Roberts turned down the chance to attend a meeting scheduled in Wichita, instead opting to hang out with his friends at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce dinner.

Elsewhere, members of Congress have exhibited even more worrisome behavior. In Texas, the often inflammatory Louie Gohmert expressed fear that he might be shot, citing the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords at a public appearance in a grocery store parking lot in Arizona.

“At this time there are groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety,” Gohmert said Tuesday in The Hill.

Ironically, many of these members of Congress, now so fearful of violence and an armed citizenry, have campaigned on the idea that good guys with guns help keep the world safe. It seems this logic would carry over to town hall meetings and other public appearances by members of Congress.

The legitimate threat of violence against a member of Congress is slim. There’s most often intense security, screening and most people aren’t bent toward violence. And contrary to statements like those from Gohmert and President Donald Trump, while attendees of such town halls might be organized - much like the Republican-friendly tea party - they likewise aren’t paid to stir up trouble. They are citizens who at long last have demanded that they be heard.

If members of Congress choose to talk to their constituents at all, it most often is through social media or the bogus “telephone town hall” that creates a great deal of space between the elected and those they serve.

What is really happening, behind the fearful rhetoric, is that we have in Congress a group of people who are fearful of being held responsible for their actions. They are afraid to face their constituents, and they are fearful of looking in the eye the very people their decisions have harmed. We have a ruling class that would rather surround itself with comforting words, like-minded individuals and the money that flows their way from the business interests that use Congress to do their bidding.

These esteemed men and women might be afraid, but it’s not of violence. It’s a fear of stepping out from the safety of their powerful enclaves to face the truth of what they have done to this country and its people.


Salina Journal, Feb. 25

A bill passed by the Kansas Senate on Wednesday (Feb. 22) that provides for special alerts to law enforcement is a good start toward better, more compassionate treatment of people who have cognitive challenges.

But as Sen. Tom Hank, D-Manhattan, pointed out as lawmakers voted on Senate Bill 74, or Joey’s Law, it doesn’t go far enough.

The law, championed by Sen. Richard Billinger, R-Goodland, was created in honor of Joey Weber, a 36-year-old Hays man who was shot by a Hays police officer in August as the two were wrestling on the ground following a motor vehicle chase. The bill now goes to the House Transportation Committee.

According to information released at the time by Ellis County Attorney Thomas Drees, a Hays police sergeant attempted to stop the car Weber was driving about 2:30 p.m. Aug. 18 because the license plate had expired. Weber finally pulled over and stopped in a residential area. Several officers had joined the chase by that time.

The officer drew his gun and ordered Weber out of the car and to the ground, but Weber started running toward a house. The officer chased him and the two ended up on the ground. As they wrestled, Weber attempted to grab the officer’s gun.

At that point, the officer pushed the barrel of the gun into Weber’s chest and fired a shot.

Drees determined that the officer’s use of force was appropriate.

In testimony to the Senate Transportation Committee, Joey’s father, John Weber, of Oakley, said Joey had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The noise of the sirens and the trauma of the officers following him caused him to flee to somewhere he was comfortable - New Age Services in Hays, which assists people who have special needs.

But the Hays officer, who never had dealt with Joey, was unaware that he was autistic or that the home he was attempting to reach was one that assisted people with special needs.

“If a law like this would have existed prior to Aug. 18, 2016, Joey would likely be alive today,” John Weber told the committee.

Under the version of Joey’s Law passed by the Senate, Kansans would have three options to alert law enforcement to cognitive challenges: having a special designation included on a motor vehicle registration; having the designation on a driver’s license or non-driver’s identification card; displaying a license tag sticker, or displaying a dash or visor placard in the vehicle. A person responsible for transporting an individual with a cognitive disability could likewise register.

The bill requires that a licensed medical professional certify the designation.

Alerting law enforcement to the possibility of cognitive impairments is a great idea, but not everyone who has a cognitive challenge and might be stopped by an officer will request the designation. Also, officers might not always see the placards, and there might not be time during a confrontation to run a license tag or driver’s license to obtain registration information.

What would be even better - and what was pointed out by Hank - would be to also require that officers be properly trained in how to deal with people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders or other cognitive difficulties. That could help a lot in improving the treatment of people with cognitive challenges and ensuring their safety.


Topeka Capital-Journal, Feb. 26

On Tuesday (Feb. 21), we explained how chronic absenteeism (when a student misses 15 or more days of school in a single year) jeopardizes academic outcomes and puts children at greater risk for an array of problems later in life. Students who miss too much school fall behind early - their standardized test scores slip below average, they stop reading at grade level, etc. - and many of them never manage to overcome this academic deficit.

The U.S. Department of Education released a comprehensive report on chronic absenteeism last year, and it revealed how pervasive the problem is in our country. In the 2013-2014 school year, around one-seventh of American students missed at least three weeks of class - a proportion that “translates to approximately 98 million school days lost.” As we noted earlier in the week, the rate of chronic absenteeism at USD 501 was even higher than the national average: 24 percent (districts with comparable demographics often report rates in the 20 percent to 30 percent range).

There are countless factors that keep students out of the classroom, but a lack of adequate health care should be among the first problems that districts address. And we’re not just talking about the common cold - there are plenty of health problems that people don’t typically associate with school attendance, but they shouldn’t be ignored.

For example, a 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California found that dental health was associated with academic performance and attendance. The study focused on 1,500 low-income students in Los Angeles and demonstrated the correlation between their oral health and GPA: “Children who reported having recent tooth pain were four times more likely to have a low grade-point average - below the median GPA of 2.8 - when compared to children who had not had dental pain.” The report continues: “.dental problems also seem to cause more absences from school for kids and more missed work for parents.”

Dave Gillham is a Topeka-based children’s dentist, and he says a comprehensive dental exam at age two can identify oral problems before they deteriorate. Gillham also says parents need to be cognizant of what children are eating - particularly if it’s high in sugar. While it’s certainly possible that poor oral health could be a symptom of more fundamental issues (such as poverty or neglect), the USC study indicates that teachers and administrators should get into the habit of considering every possibility when trying to determine why a student is chronically absent.

If a student’s basic health care needs aren’t being met, attendance invariably suffers. According to a University of Chicago study on chronic absenteeism among preschool students, illness is the most prevalent cause of missed seat time (it accounted for “more than half of all preschool absences”). Although students will inevitably get sick, illness disproportionately affects low-income families who don’t have the resources to prevent and treat medical conditions. This is only one of the reasons why minority students have higher rates of chronic absenteeism than their peers.

Even when we’re just talking about health care, chronic absenteeism is a complex phenomenon that touches race, socioeconomic status, etc. The school administrators who understand this will be equipped to do something about it.


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