- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Topeka Capital-Journal, June 25

Although the 2018 elections are a year and a half away, Kansans should already be paying attention. The Legislature underwent a drastic political transformation when more than one-third of our lawmakers were replaced in 2016, and this resulted in the passage of a $1.2 billion tax reform package and other bills that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. But this doesn’t mean the political character of Kansas has permanently changed - we’ll find out just how moderate the state really is in November 2018.

One prediction is as certain as anything can be in politics: The elimination of Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts will be a decisive issue in the next election. Republican lawmakers who voted for Senate Bill 30 will encounter conservative primary challengers who will decry the “largest tax increase in state history” (a line Brownback has used again and again). Advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity will attempt to demonstrate that the tax increase imposes an intolerable burden on the middle class and stifles economic activity. And lawmakers who voted against SB 30 will tell their constituents that they were the lonely defenders of small government principles against the shady coalition of RINOs and liberals in the Legislature.

We can already see the contours of the gubernatorial race as well. Secretary of State Kris Kobach accuses the Legislature of passing a “disastrous $1.2 billion tax increase” and argues that the state needs a “candidate for governor who will say ‘no’ and stop the madness of ever-increasing taxes in Topeka.” Jim Barnett, a former state senator who won the Republican nomination in 2006 and announced his candidacy last week, contends that the tax bill was necessary and praises the “tremendously courageous legislators” who voted for it: “Frankly, I would also put a sign up across I-70 that says the Kansas tax experiment has come to an end.”

There will be plenty of major issues in this election (such as Medicaid expansion), but the sharp divergence on tax policy suggests that 2018 will largely be a referendum on the state budget and the passage of SB 30. If this is true, the decision Kansans face couldn’t be any starker.

You may wonder why we’re discussing political dynamics this early in the process, but the answer is simple: civic engagement shouldn’t begin and end during the last few months of an election season. We have a tendency to forget about politics until about a month or two before the primaries (and in many cases, the general election), and this is particularly true when it comes to lower-profile contests for seats in the Legislature or local office. But this election is too important to procrastinate until the voter guides are released. Kansans should already be arming themselves against the swarm of pundits and interest groups that will be vying for their attention, and the only way to do this is to conduct their own research and draw their own conclusions.

The director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Jeff Glendening, says his organization will be “thoroughly engaged” in advocacy during this election: “Kansas voters were not told the Legislature would be raising their personal income taxes in such dramatic fashion to pay for increased state government spending - they aren’t going to be happy when they find out that’s what happened.” But Kansans already know what happened - some people just hope they’ll forget it by November 2018.

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Lawrence Journal-World, June 23

The announcement that the University of Kansas will spend close to $300 million on aging Memorial Stadium and KU football facilities is welcome news.

KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger announced the pending renovations during a meet-and-greet event for the Kansas football team on Wednesday at The Well Bar in Kansas City, Mo. Zenger did not provide much detail but said architects would complete their renderings of the stadium’s renovation in three weeks, and the final version is expected to be released to the public in September.

Along with renovations to the stadium, Zenger announced plans for an indoor football facility that the team can practice in. He said total spending on the project will approach $300 million.

The renovation of Memorial Stadium, built in 1921, is sorely needed. In subjective rankings of college football venues, the stadium consistently ranks at the bottom of the Big 12 and in the bottom quartile of all major college football stadiums. Memorial Stadium, which holds 50,000 people, was only half full for Kansas’ six home football games last season. The team averaged just 25,828 fans per home game in 2016, the lowest attendance not only in the Big 12, but also the lowest among the 65 schools in the so-called Power 5 conferences and Notre Dame. In fact, 18 small-conference schools averaged more fans than Kansas.

Clearly, the performance of the on-field product - Kansas football is just 9-51 in the past five seasons - affects attendance, but stadium experience matters too. Consider that Iowa State, which won just three games in 2016, still averaged 52,557 fans per game at Jack Trice Stadium last season.

Financially, football remains the engine that drives college athletic departments, and a significant portion of that revenue is from maximizing ticket sales. Programs like Kansas can ill afford to have their stadiums half empty for home games.

The football team has started to show improvement under third-year head coach David Beaty, but if that improvement is going to continue, Kansas has to be more competitive with the rest of the Big 12 in recruiting. Facilities are a major factor in recruiting, so stadium renovations and an indoor practice facility can make significant differences in the talent Kansas recruits.

“The stuff we’re going to do first is like I talked about, things that we should’ve had 10 years ago,” Zenger said Wednesday. “At the top of the list is an indoor facility. So as we begin the stadium, we’re going to start with an indoor facility. We’re going to do things that will help young guys on the field.”

Zenger is right; the stadium renovations are long overdue. Still, it’s great news for the football program and for the university that a major renovation is on the table, and everyone from players to fans should look forward to hearing more specifics on the stadium plans.

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Salina Journal, June 20

The University of Kansas’ 2.5 percent tuition increase, approved Thursday by the Board of Regents, seems like a bargain compared with recent years. In fact, it’s half the 5 percent increase the university implemented for the 2016-17 school year.

But before undergraduates start celebrating, consider that the Kansas economy has been growing at an annual rate of less than 1 percent, and the tuition increase from 2015-16 to 2016-17 was nearly twice the rate of wage growth in the state. Overall, tuition at four-year public colleges and universities in Kansas has increased 21 percent from 2012-13 to 2016-17, the 12th-largest tuition increase among the 50 states.

Any tuition increase is difficult; increases that so rapidly outpace wage and income growth are especially burdensome, especially on middle-class families. The end result is that KU students are taking on increasing amounts of debt to finance their educations.

Already, KU and Kansas State University students graduate with more debt than students at their peer universities in the region, according to Student Loan Report, which analyzed student loan debt of 2015 graduates for public and private schools throughout the country.

On average, KU graduates in the Class of 2015 had $14,296 in debt. Fifty-two percent of KU graduates had student loan debt. Kansas State was similar: 58 percent of graduates had student loan debt and the average amount was $14,963. Among Big 12 schools, graduates of Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU finished with less debt than graduates of Kansas and Kansas State. Only Texas Tech, West Virginia and Iowa State graduates had more debt. Baylor wasn’t included in the data.

Other state schools in the region with fewer graduates with debt and graduates with lower debt on average include Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas A&M; and the University of Illinois.

For the 2017-18 academic year, KU will charge $4,908 per semester for in-state undergraduates, an increase of about $120 over last year. That’s not all; student fees will increase more than $500 a semester.

Given continued decreases in state funding, it’s not surprising that KU and other universities continue to push the upper limits of tuition and fees. But there is a limit to what Kansas families can afford, and the rising indebtedness among graduates is a concerning indicator that KU is nearing that limit.

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Wichita Eagle, June 21

The Wichita City Council showed wisdom on Tuesday when it sent a contract for union stagehands who work at Century II back for further negotiation.

The move will allow for consideration of concerns from not-for-profit theater and music organizations that will be affected by the contract but weren’t consulted until it was complete.

Representatives of Music Theatre Wichita, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Music Theatre for Young People said they were asked to look at the agreement and share concerns, but were told no changes would be made.

A representative of the city said it would have been inappropriate to involve the groups in negotiations.

We understand that the groups should not have been present during direct negotiations, but it would have been prudent to go over proposed changes with them before an agreement was voted upon by the union, allowing for further negotiation by the city.

While there is disagreement on this point, the groups feel the agreement would have significant financial effects on them, perhaps even resulting in bankruptcy. Music Theatre Wichita spends about $110,000 a year for union stagehands, said Wayne Bryan, the group’s executive and artistic director. The contract would have pushed those costs up about 65 percent, he said.

Music Theatre Wichita makes heavy use of paid college students and unpaid high school interns, who work under the supervision of union workers, Bryan said. The contract would have required an increase in the number of union workers used, he said.

Groups such as Music Theatre Wichita, Music Theatre for Young People and the Wichita Symphony Orchestra provide cultural vibrancy to our city. They should not be held to the same standards for union labor as money-making productions that make stops at Century II.

We hope the city and the union can better account for that with a revised version of the contract.

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