- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Kansas City Star, Jan. 29

Murder highlights mental health needs in Kansas

In December, Brandon Brown’s story reached its sad climax in a Kansas courtroom, where he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The Star introduced you to Brown in June 2015. Brown, then 30 years old, had been in and out of treatment for mental illness for most of his adult life. He eventually landed in a nursing home in Kiowa County near the Oklahoma border.

After a couple of scuffles with other residents, Brown was sent to the state hospital in Osawatomie for more focused diagnosis and treatment. Osawatomie, facing overcrowding problems, treated Brown for a week, then sent him back to the nursing home.

Brown beat a nursing home resident to death three days later. He pleaded no contest to second-degree murder, and a judge issued the 20-year sentence.

Untangling this bleak tale is difficult. Some state officials have long insisted that Brown’s behavior was unpredictable and that no amount of counseling or medicine would have stopped it. To blame the killing on overcrowding or improper care, they say, is to lessen Brown’s responsibility for his behavior.

The family of the victim largely shares this view.

But others - including Brown’s father, James - insist Kansas did not provide Brown with the help he needed. “He should have been in Osawatomie longer,” James Brown recently told the Kansas News Service, which examined the story in depth. “You can’t tell me he was in his right mind.”

Precisely apportioning responsibility for the tragedy may be impossible. But Kansans can still learn from it: The state’s mental health system is underfunded, its employees overworked and its facilities substandard.

Agencies that deal with the mentally ill understand this. Any sheriff’s deputy or police officer will tell you jail cells are filled with people who need counseling, not incarceration. Kansas lacks the community beds to treat the mentally ill.

In 2015, a state committee was blunt: “An inadequate safety net,” it found, “jeopardizes the well-being of (mentally ill) individuals, puts communities at risk and places an undue burden on local resources, including law enforcement.”

Yet the Kansas budget crisis has crimped the state’s ability to fully fund its mental health facilities. Conditions at Osawatomie State Hospital were so bad the federal government stopped reimbursing the state for patients there, forcing state taxpayers to take up the slack.

Federal re-certification of Osawatomie is pending.

Kansas’ refusal to expand Medicaid also has meant less money for mental health treatment, and recent state cuts in Medicaid reimbursement rates have clobbered community-based mental health centers.

Treatment of the mentally ill must remain a top priority for Kansas legislators, and spending for treatment should be increased. People with severe mental illnesses simply can’t take care of themselves, and we all suffer as a result.

Taxpayers will foot the bill to incarcerate Brandon Brown for the next 20 years. His father says he wants to make sure stories like his son’s don’t continue to play out in this state. Surely most Kansans would agree.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, Jan. 28

Facing reality about our unemployment rate

In early December, the Kansas Legislative Research Department released a memo that predicts the state will have a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the country by 2018. While the unemployment rate in Kansas hasn’t risen above the national level in more than a decade, stagnant job growth, a struggling economy and “relatively weak labor market components” (according to the memo, which cites a report from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve) are just a few of the factors making it difficult to keep up with other states.

If you’ve been paying attention to the debate about Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts and their effect on economic growth, this news should come as no surprise.

Brownback often argues that his tax cuts have spurred private-sector job growth, but Kansas was creating jobs at a faster rate before the cuts took effect in January 2013. Moreover, the total number of nonfarm jobs shrunk by 0.7 percent between December 2015 and December 2016, which means Kansas had one of the worst growth rates in the country in 2016. Although Kansas gained 9,300 jobs in 2015, it lost 9,400 jobs last year (1,000 of which fell off between November and December).

As the U.S. and other states in the region have caught up with (and in many cases, surpassed) Kansas, the governor has continued to insist that his economic policies are working.

When the unemployment rate temporarily dipped below 4 percent last year, Brownback was quick to claim that “the recent changes in Kansas income tax policy deserve substantial credit”: “Since 2013, Kansas has seen 11 straight quarters of job growth in the private sector. In nine of these quarters, job growth outpaced Kansas’ 20-year average. Thanks to this strong job growth, Kansas has its lowest unemployment rate in 15 years sitting at 3.9 percent.” If Brownback is willing to invoke the unemployment rate and job growth when they reinforce his narrative, he should be willing to admit it when the numbers tell a different story.

If the unemployment rate in Kansas turns out to be higher than in the rest of the country by 2018, will Brownback concede that this undermines his assertions about the relationship between record unemployment and his tax program? Perhaps he’ll tell us that unemployment would be even higher without the tax cuts. Perhaps he’ll blame the employment situation on declining agricultural revenue, low oil prices, etc. Perhaps he’ll say other states were bound to catch up because it’s “difficult to sustain robust job growth while at near full employment levels” (a point he made last February). Here’s what seems least likely: that he’ll acknowledge the tax cuts didn’t work as intended.

Considering the job growth Kansas was enjoying before the tax cuts went into effect (as well as the already plummeting unemployment rate at the time), Brownback shouldn’t have taken “substantial credit” for the state’s economic performance. Just look at the unemployment trend line - it was moving in the right direction long before Brownback took office. And if you need any more evidence, remember: Kansas had the ninth-lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. six years ago. Now we’re ranked 19th.

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The Hutchinson News, Jan. 27

Rural Jobs Act fits in nicely with other programs

Early on, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback championed the Rural Opportunity Zone as a way to attract residents to the less populated parts of the state with the promise of student loan payoffs and tax incentives. Now there’s another measure aimed at attracting and growing businesses in those areas - the Ad Astra Rural Jobs Act, drafted by Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill.

The bill would extend loans to companies that want to grow, expand and create jobs - targeting cities with a population of less than 60,000. Money for the loans would come from investors, who would receive tax credits for their participation in the program. The program would look to help operations that focus on manufacturing, plant sciences, technology or agricultural technology.

The bill’s author sought input from the Kansas Department of Commerce so that it might have a better chance of passing.

The Rural Opportunity Zone was a good initiative that was successful in drawing new residents to rural Kansas. A similarly thoughtful approach to the recruitment of jobs in those areas makes sense. After all, the people who relocate to such areas are likely to be in need of employment.

And while tax credits and incentives for large corporations may sound counter-intuitive and at least in part contribute to a weakening of the state’s coffers, there is a need to leverage government to spark private investment in areas that would likely otherwise continue to suffer decline.

In many rural areas of Kansas, additional incentive is not just helpful, it’s required if a company is going to grow. Without a growing population, a declining tax base and a location removed from bigger population centers, industry in those areas often struggle without some aid or assistance.

The Ad Astra Rural Jobs Act is a well thought-out measure that complements many of the state’s other programs that aim to combat rural decline and disinvestment.

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The Wichita Eagle, Jan. 29

Voting claims are real fraud

Secretary of State Kris Kobach says he advised President Trump to investigate voter fraud. How about they start by investigating how the votes of some Kansans weren’t counted last election? Or how Kobach’s rules and requirements kept thousands of other Kansans from registering?

Trump repeated his unsubstantiated claim last week that 3 million to 5 million “illegal” voters had cost him from winning the popular vote. He then asked for a “major investigation” into voter fraud.

Multiple organizations have examined the past election and found no evidence of significant voter fraud. However, there is evidence that legally registered voters in Kansas had their votes discarded.

More than 40,000 Kansans cast provisional ballots in November’s general election in the state’s 10 biggest counties. The majority of those ballots were counted, but 13,717 were not, including 2,194 in Sedgwick County.

Most of the rejected ballots were by people who hadn’t registered to vote. But some of the ballots were by people who said they registered online but whose names weren’t on local voter rolls.

Kobach told state lawmakers that a computer glitch prevented some registrations from being recorded. State officials were aware of the glitch and instructed local election officials to count the votes of anyone who presented an online screen shot showing that they had completed the registration process.

However, Kobach never told voters that there was a computer problem and that they should check to make sure they were on the voter rolls. He also didn’t tell them that they might need to bring a screen shot of their online registration (and, of course, most people did not think it was necessary to save a screen shot).

No one knows how many people experienced the registration problem and how many had their votes rejected.

Douglas County election officials tried to track the problem in their county, Associated Press reported. They documented 52 instances of voters who could prove they registered but were not on the voter rolls. An additional 92 people insisted they had registered but couldn’t provide screen-shot proof, so their votes were tossed.

In addition to people who registered properly but were not on the rolls, thousands of other Kansans had their registrations put “in suspense” because they didn’t provide proof of citizenship.

Kobach has tried to scare Kansans into thinking that voter fraud was a major problem. But as U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson noted last year, Kansas identified only three illegal voters from 1995 to 2013.

Kobach also apparently was the source of Trump’s claim that voter fraud cost him the popular vote.

Such exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims are the real fraud.

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