- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Kansas City Star, Feb. 8

Gov. Jeff Colyer’s first major policy speech was short on realistic solutions

To say that Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer’s first substantive speech to the Legislature was a bust would be going too far.

But not by much.

Colyer faces the daunting task of assuming office after the Legislature has already been in session for a month. Given that, the state’s new-look chief executive has little time to dance around the big issues, especially the state’s ongoing school finance crisis. He has to be realistic and cut to the quick when it comes to solutions.

But on Wednesday afternoon, Colyer laid out an illogical and unworkable path forward. In his first serious policy address, he proposed settling the state’s school funding issue once and for all, boosting support for highways and spending more to safeguard Kansas’ most vulnerable kids - apparently without raising taxes.

Simply put, that’s impossible, and it does nothing to pave the way for lawmakers struggling to craft a solution to the state Supreme Court’s order to adequately fund education.

Colyer said all this while challenging lawmakers to place long-term interests ahead of short-term political gain. But in taking a tax increase off the table, Colyer has done just the opposite. As a candidate for governor himself, he’s focused on the November election - or the crowded August primary - instead of aiming at what every in-the-know Kansan wants, and that’s an end to those court fights over education.

In fact, Colyer reserved the strongest language of his little-more-than-30-minute address to a joint session of the Legislature for decrying those 50 years of litigation. He ticked off the names of the last 10 governors - five Republicans, five Democrats - and noted that all had faced the specter of lawsuits “overshadowing education.”

“This,” Colyer intoned, “must end now.”

As he addressed what he called the “elephant in the room,” Colyer missed a prime opportunity to seize the opening that his predecessor, the much-maligned Gov. Sam Brownback, had provided him. In his State of the State address last month, Brownback declared the need to spend $600 million more on public schools to satisfy the courts. In doing so, Brownback backed off his long-standing feud with the court’s judges and fell in with the proposition that big bucks are needed, and needed soon, to satisfy the court.

But Colyer declined to endorse that dollar figure, even though some leaders of both parties already have, or acknowledge the need for higher taxes. That will only make the road ahead more arduous.

Colyer also endorsed a short-sighted proposal requiring adults to work to receive Medicaid assistance. He said such a requirement will encourage “better health outcomes,” but there’s little evidence to support such a ridiculous claim, as most doctors will attest. And he said nothing about expanding Medicaid, a move that’s long overdue.

The new governor played to the GOP primary base by calling for a constitutional amendment on abortion to ensure that state courts don’t get away with striking down restrictions that federal courts approve. With the Legislature facing such a momentous session, the injection of abortion politics wasn’t helpful.

On the positive side, Colyer’s repeated calls for bipartisanship and a smoother working relationship with the Legislature were welcome after the contentious Brownback years. He also deserves credit for his pledges to end a culture of sexual harassment in the statehouse and increase transparency by making it easier for citizens to obtain public records.

But ultimately, Colyer’s proposition that Kansas can advance without the money to do so amounts to a fantastical fairy tale. Once again, lawmakers will have to seize the day and do the hard work.


The Wichita Eagle, Feb. 9

Gov. Jeff Colyer makes strides in one area of Kansas government

Examine the steps taken by Gov. Jeff Colyer this week to make state government more open, and one question comes to mind.

They weren’t doing these things already?

No, open government has been a wish and a want in Kansas. Former Gov. Sam Brownback led a closed-off, secretive state government that led to frustration from media and anyone seeking the most basic information.

This week brought hope for the future. Colyer signed executive orders designed to make it easier to learn the state’s business. Some of them were so simple, it’s a wonder they haven’t been in place before now.

As governor for 10 days, Colyer has made transparency an early priority and has succeeded, in one area, in separating himself from Brownback’s tenure. The moves have not only made Kansas government more transparent, but Colyer has shown he’ll lead based on his own values. (It’s also a good move considering he’s running to keep the job this year.)

Colyer signed an executive order making the first 100 pages of an open-records request free - it has cost as much as $25 plus fees. The change signals a desire to be more receptive to requests instead of being punitive and discouraging citizens from requesting records by overcharging.

Colyer also signed an order requiring executive branch employees to use government email accounts to conduct business. Brownback and his administration were found to have regularly used private accounts for state business.

A website will be created to list open executive-branch meetings. Cabinet agencies will have public metrics to gauge success. Two more common-sense moves.

Colyer was also part of developing Brownback’s budget proposal that increased funding for the Department for Children and Families, notably relaxing guidelines for the release of information about child deaths or near deaths.

The governor also required sexual harassment training for his branch of government, extending the example set by both chambers of the Legislature earlier in the session.

An additional area where we would like to see Colyer lead is in easing open-records laws so law-enforcement body camera video could be more readily available. Agencies are too quick to lean on exceptions to the law and keeping video unseen. Transparency should filter down to local law enforcement.

As well as Colyer has done in forcing more transparency in the Statehouse, other issues are awaiting his leadership.

His Wednesday address to lawmakers didn’t tackle the elephant that he acknowledged was in the room: school funding. The Kansas Supreme Court has demanded a new funding formula from the Legislature, one that is likely to cost in the hundreds of millions.

Colyer lacked specifics, including putting a price tag on the formula. He emphasized there should be no tax hikes for Kansans to pay for it, and that it must be phased in over a number of years. Put together, that’s an impossible task.

If lawmakers were looking for the new governor to lead the way in finding a funding formula, they were disappointed.

There is time for Colyer to turn around and lead on school funding. Formula finding is on hold while an education-spending study is being prepared for a March release.

For now, though, Colyer is off to an encouraging start by making government more accessible, something that will benefit almost all Kansans. What seemed like easy steps took a new governor recognizing his state had become too secretive, too sensitive.

The challenge now becomes fixing the tougher stuff.


The Topeka Capital-Journal, Feb. 11

Bill against privatized prisons right move

A bipartisan bill co-sponsored by majority and minority leaders of the Kansas Senate would limit privatization at state prisons and maintain the role the Kansas Department of Corrections fulfills regarding day-to-day operations of those facilities.

The legislation was authored after a 20-year, $362 million lease-to-own contract for a new state prison in Lansing was approved by the State Finance Council.

CoreCivic, which is based in Tennessee, was contracted to build the new prison. However, under measures outlined in the bill, which was endorsed by the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, CoreCivic would not be granted authority to oversee personnel operations at Kansas adult and juvenile facilities.

Concerns with CoreCivic first arose when lobbyists with close personal relationships to former Gov. Sam Brownback were hired by the company.

While the influence of those lobbyists could have played into the move to keep Kansas prisons privatized, shortcomings that have contributed to lawsuits and complaints against private prison companies were also cited.

The privatization of prisons has prompted concerns over the safety of officers, who have been found to be undertrained while working in understaffed environments with high turnover. The inadequacy of medical and education programs at privatized prisons has been cited as another concern.

In some cases, problems incurred outweighed the cost savings private prison companies often advocate. Also, private prison companies benefit from systematic increases in incarceration rates, which provides little incentive for such companies to offer education that rehabilitates prisoners and allows them to become functional members of society upon release.

Various initiatives pertaining to criminal justice reform were included in the recent State of the Union address delivered by President Trump, including one that centered on the need for prisoners to be integrated into the workforce.

“As America regains its strength, opportunity must be extended to all citizens,? Trump said. “That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons, to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life.?

That statement was made along with references to crime he linked to rampant illegal immigration. It is possible then that the level of support the Trump administration gives to federal initiatives for prison reform could be overshadowed by immigration reforms.

Nonetheless, the issue of reforming prisoners gained the attention of the president. The opportunity to implement promising reforms would be a signature achievement in a country where many politicians play to the desires, and donations, of private prisons by advocating for additional incarceration.

In Kansas, it only makes sense for the state to have a role in educating prisoners if, upon their release, they return to Kansas communities.

Their chance of gaining employment, while saddled with a criminal record, requires potential employers to believe that any education and training received in prison adequately prepared and reformed the former inmate. Inability to find employment often leads to recidivism, which contributes to rising crime and incarceration.

The Senate bill that prohibits outsourcing of personnel management operations at state prison facilities may have been designed to mostly address safety concerns, while also protecting state employees who must absorb a significant decrease in staffing when the modernized prison opens in Lansing.

By avoiding privatization, though, another step can be taken by the state to also modernize education and training in an attempt to reduce the rate of repeat offenders.

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