Posts tagged with Kansas Politics

Legislators reaching crunch time for making decisions on future of KPERS

A special commission that has been studying the state’s public employee retirement system is nearing some crucial decisions that could affect the lives of thousands of Kansans.

The commission is scheduled to spend Wednesday and Thursday debating whether to recommend a new retirement plan design and modifications to the current one.

“We have a big task ahead of us,” said Rep. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, who co-chairs the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System Study Commission.

KPERS provides retirement benefits to state, local government and school employees and has nearly 280,000 members.

Pensions are financed through contributions from employees and employers and investments made by the system.

Employees who have retired receive a “defined benefit” based on how long they worked and how much they made on average in the final years of employment. For example, a typical worker earning $40,000 a year, who worked for 20 years will receive an annual pension of $14,000.

A combination of inadequate funding and record-making investment losses in 2008 have hurt the long-term funding status of the system. Many states have faced the same problem as Kansas.

Some have argued that Kansas should convert to a 401 (k)-style “defined contribution” system, but others have said that would do nothing to solve the existing funding gap.

Holmes said another proposal that has caught some attention is what is called a “stacked hybrid system” in which salaries below a certain level would continue under the current pension plan, while earnings above that level would go into a 401 (k)-style plan. If Kansas were to adopt this plan, it would be the first state in the nation to do so.

But others argue that what the Legislature has already done is enough to solve the long-term funding problem.

During the last legislative session, legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback approved House Bill 2194, which would increase employer contribution rates and provide an option for some employees to contribute more in exchange for increased retirement benefits. However, those changes won’t take effect unless the Legislature acts on bills recommended by the KPERS Study Commission during the 2012 session that starts in January.

KPERS officials have said those additional employer and employee contributions and plan design changes in HB 2194 “are a meaningful step towards improving the system’s long-term funding outlook and reaching actuarially required contribution levels.” But the system is still vulnerable to future economic downturns that cause investment returns to decline, KPERS officials said.

One commission member, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said HB 2194 “is still alive and part of the process.” Rep. Geraldine Flaharty, D-Wichita, who serves on another pension committee, said HB 2194 “is a reasonable plan” that solves the funding problem.

By Scott Rothschild

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Kansas officials oppose proposed federal restrictions on children working on farms

Gov. Sam Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and other Kansas officials said Thursday proposed federal restrictions aimed at increasing safety for children working on farms go too far.

“The learning opportunities provided by working in agriculture are second to none,” Brownback said. “Spending time on a farm or ranch teaches young people the value of hard work and instills in them a respect for land and animals,” he said.

Schmidt said, “This proposed regulation is a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic assault on rural culture. If this had been the law when I was a kid working on my grandpa’s farm, a formative part of my childhood would have been illegal.”

The officials were criticizing a move by the U.S. Department of Labor to update child labor regulations in agriculture.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. The fatality rate for young agriculture workers is four times the rate of young people working in non-agricultural workplaces, according to the Labor Department.

The proposal would prohibit farm workers under age 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment unless the child was under the supervision of a parent or guardian. It also would restrict youngsters from working around certain animals and handling pesticides.

Some agriculture officials have said the restrictions are too much and would hurt family farmers who depend on youngsters to work on the farm.

In addition to Brownback and Schmidt, the federal proposal was criticized by Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman, Secretary of Commerce Pat George and Secretary of Labor Karin Brownlee.

By Scott Rothschild

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Kansas revenue department refuses Journal-World’s request for information about tax reform group

In response to a request for tax policy records, Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration said even if it has the records, it doesn’t have to release them.

On Oct. 11, the Lawrence Journal-World made a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for access to or copies of minutes, agendas and policy papers of a group that has been working in private to prepare a tax policy recommendation for Brownback.

Kansas Department of Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan is heading the effort to give recommendations to Brownback. When given the newspaper’s request, the Revenue Department said it would need some time to respond to the “extensive nature of your request,” but promised to respond by Nov. 30.

A Nov. 29 letter from Jeannine Koranda, public information officer with the Revenue Department, said no records would be forthcoming.

“To the extent that we have any records called for by your request, they are exempt from disclosure pursuant to K.S.A. 45-221(a)(2), (20),” the letter stated.

That part of the Kansas Open Records law provides an exemption to the law that includes, “Notes, preliminary drafts, research data in the process of analysis, unfunded grant proposals, memoranda, recommendations or other records in which opinions are expressed or policies or actions are proposed, except that this exemption shall not apply when such records are publicly cited or identified in an open meeting or in an agenda of an open meeting.”

Brownback’s stated intention to overhaul the state tax code has generated a lot of interest and speculation. In past statements, Brownback has said he wants to reduce or eliminate the state income tax as a way to grow the economy. This idea has prompted concerns from some about how the state would fund education, social services and public safety.

Jordan has talked about a task force working on the tax proposal, but has provided few details. Earlier this year, it appeared the plan would be unveiled before the end of the year.

But now the governor’s office has said Brownback’s proposal probably won’t be outlined until his State of the State address to the Legislature, which is scheduled for Jan. 11.

Koranda has said senior Revenue Department staff members Richard Cram, head of policy and research, and Steve Stotts, director of taxation, have been consulted on the proposal. She said Republican leaders of the House and Senate tax committees had been consulted.

But she has declined to name any businesspeople who are working with the task force.

The only person outside state government who has been named to the task force working on a recommendation for Brownback is Arthur Laffer, who had served as a key economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Laffer espouses cutting taxes for corporations and top-income earners as a way to grow the economy through increased jobs.

Laffer, who is being paid $75,000 as a consultant on the Kansas tax proposal, helped write the latest edition of “Rich States, Poor States” for the American Legislative Exchange Council. Brownback wrote the forward to the ALEC report.

By Scott Rothschild

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Panel slams Brownback proposal to move juvenile justice programs to SRS

Republican and Democratic legislators on Tuesday approved a motion seeking to stop Gov. Sam Brownback from moving several juvenile justice programs to the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

The action by the House-Senate Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice came after law enforcement and juvenile experts said the plan by Brownback, a Republican, would harm programs that are helping young people and keeping the public safe. They also said it was proposed without any input from experts in the field.

The committee’s meeting produced testy exchanges between legislators and Brownback’s point man on the issue, SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr.

Several community and law enforcement officials said they were stunned when they learned earlier this month that Brownback planned to issue an executive order to move several major programs out of the Juvenile Justice Authority and place them under SRS.

They said the programs, such as intake and assessment of juvenile offenders and prevention grants, were working fine and SRS was ill-equipped to handle them.

The plan was part of an agency reorganization included in Brownback’s Medicaid overhaul.

Two weeks after the plan was announced on Nov. 8, Siedlecki and Juvenile Justice Authority Commissioner Curtis Whitten invited stakeholders to a Dec. 12 meeting “to discuss this exciting opportunity , as well as, the challenges involved with the transition.”

“This sounds like ready, fire, aim,” Committee Chairwoman Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, told Siedlecki.

Colloton and several other committee members said Siedlecki should have sought input and information from those working in the field before making the proposal.

Siedlecki said the reorganization was needed to bring all children and family issues under one agency. He said several other states had done this. He said the current system is working well but added, “I think we can do better.”

But several legislators said Siedlecki had no details on how the system would perform better under SRS. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park.

Speaking to Siedlecki, who came from Florida last year to work in the Brownback administration, Owens said it was offensive that people have not bothered to learn what is going on in Kansas before trying to change things.

Siedlecki shot back that he has bought a home in Kansas and is paying taxes here. “I prefer you call me a Kansan,” he said.

The meeting room was packed with people who were upset with the Brownback proposal. Many noted that the current juvenile justice system was developed in the late 1990s when it was taken away from SRS because of failings in that agency.

Betsy Gillespie, director of the Johnson County Corrections, has worked in the field for 37 years. She asked, “Why would we disrupt the current system when it has changed so much for the better?”

Ed Klump, representing three law enforcement associations, said the current system allows for local oversight and development in each area of the state.

Mark Masterson, director of the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, and Stuart Little, with the Kansas Community Corrections Association, also spoke against the proposal.

Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, made a motion recommending that Brownback, at this time, not issue an executive order reorganizing the agencies and programs until more research is done.

“This whole thing hasn’t been vetted enough,” Kelsey said.

The committee approved the recommendation on a voice vote. Only Rep. Jana Goodman, R-Leavenworth, voted against the motion.

By Scott Rothschild

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KDHE secretary advises KU pharmacy students to get to know their legislators

The secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment told a group of Kansas University pharmacy students they should be their own advocates and make their voices heard as the state works to fix a gap between Medicaid funding and expenses.

Bob Moser told the group of students and administrators on Monday the funding gap is widening for Medicaid costs —enrollment is going up by about 4.6 percent per year, while costs are increasing at about 7.4 percent per year, he said.

“We have to address this cost growth, or it’s going to affect other programs,” he said.

Costs are growing in large part because the population is aging, he said, and more people are becoming disabled, which qualifies them to receive Medicaid funds.

Moser said his office is focused on efforts to integrate “whole-person” care into the system and to involve health care managers in the care of patients to help them take medications on time, refill prescriptions and keep appointments, among other efforts.

He encouraged pharmacy students to involve themselves in the policymaking process by meeting with legislators.

He talked about working as a physician for 22 years in the western Kansas town of Tribune. He was often called upon to testify at state legislative hearings on a variety of topics.

“They value what health care providers have to say,” he said of legislators. “But they may not seek you out, necessarily.”

He encouraged students to make appointments with legislators, to be brief and come prepared with two or three talking points, leave with a business card and follow up with a thank-you note.

“Develop that relationship,” he said. “Whether you voted for them or not doesn’t matter.”

Donating big dollars to campaign war chests isn’t necessary, he said. But, especially at the national level, pairing with an organization with a political action committee can help get you in the door to see a legislator rather than working with staff.

“(Money) does get you access,” he said. “Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.”

Still, students shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to make their voices heard.

“It’s amazing what you’ll be able to do,” he said.

By Andy Hyland

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New labor coalition forms to fight Brownback initiatives

Organized labor was roughed up during the last legislative session. Union leaders say the next session, which starts in January, will be even tougher.

“We are fighting back,” said Terry Forsyth, president of the newly formed Working Kansas Alliance. He was flanked on Friday by more than 50 union members during a news conference held in conjunction with the Kansas AFL-CIO biennial convention.

Forsyth said he will oppose efforts by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and many Republican legislators to start a 401(k)-style plan for public employees. He said that doesn’t fix the funding problem in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, which was caused by the state failing to contribute enough into the system.

He also predicted there will be a repeat of last session’s fight over a bill to limit the rights of union members to participate in political campaigns. That bill passed in the House with only Republican votes and prompted a rare demonstration in the House gallery that resulted in union members being kicked out.

Brownback has said he is working on improving the state economy and bringing more jobs to Kansas. He is set to unveil new tax and school finance plans.

His spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, said, “Clinging to outdated ways of doing things won’t work and taxpayers can’t afford it.” She added, “In the last decade, Kansas actually lost private sector jobs. We’re starting to turn that around, but there’s a lot of work to do. To grow Kansas, we need to control spending while reforming taxes and regulation.”

Forsyth also warned there will be an attempt in the 2012 legislative session, which starts in January, to do away with the state minimum wage law, which was increased in 2010 to match the federal minimum wage law and prior to that had been $2.65 an hour, the lowest state minimum wage in the country.

Forsyth said he hoped that labor’s success earlier this month in overturning a law in Ohio that limited the bargaining rights of public-sector unions and a movement to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signal that the public is getting unhappy with politicians with anti-labor agendas.

“As we saw in Ohio, initiatives that impede the ambitions of working people are rightfully viewed by voters as being too extreme. We believe Kansans will draw the same conclusions regarding the similar policies being pushed by the governor and members of the Kansas Legislature,” he said.

Earlier this week, Walker canceled plans to attend a fund-raiser in Wichita, which the Sedgwick County Republican Party said was also to feature Brownback. Labor groups claimed credit for the cancelation because they said they planned to bring thousands of workers to protest Walker’s appearance in Kansas.

Forsyth said the Working Kansas Alliance would also oppose plans to push more of public school and social service funding onto local governments.

“This fight is not about political parties and labels. This fight is about what is right and what is wrong,” he said.

By Scott Rothschild

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KBA: Investments helped create jobs, funding

The Kansas Bioscience Authority on Wednesday announced that its $87.5 million in investments since 2004 has led to $816.5 million in jobs created, external research funding, capital expenses and equity investments.

“We don’t take full credit for any of these outcomes,” said Sherlyn Manson, the KBA’s director of marketing and communications, as the KBA investments are often matched and supplemented by other donations.

Still, KBA leaders touted the results as a demonstration that its grants and investments were helping to build the bioscience sector in the state.

Some figures released Wednesday include:

• Since 2004, the authority said, 1,347 new full-time bioscience jobs have been created by 41 Kansas companies and universities, related to KBA investments, with an average annual wage of $68,716.

• In the 2011 fiscal year that ended June 30, investments that the KBA made helped attract $18.2 million in new external research funding, and since 2004 the authority reported $104.9 million in external research funding sparked by KBA investments, including $44.6 million in research funding for the Kansas University Cancer Center.

• The authority reported $65.9 million in capital investments, including new facilities, equipment and land, related to KBA investments in the 2011 fiscal year and $278.5 million since 2004.

• In fiscal year 2011, the authority reported it had helped Kansas companies attract $30.6 million in new equity investments made by venture capital firms, angel investors and other private investors and helped attract $78.9 million since its founding in 2004.

The authority is still awaiting the final outcomes of a forensic audit of its finances by the firm BKD ordered by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

By Andy Hyland

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Ad by Rove group blasts Virginia candidate over Capitol renovation spending

What do Republican political strategist Karl Rove, the Kansas Capitol renovation project and the Senate race in Virginia have in common?

Rove's Crossroads GPS has unleashed new TV ads opposing Democratic candidates in several states.

One of those ads targets Tim Kaine, the Democratic Senate candidate in Virginia. The ad alleges that Kaine supported spending $39 million on "office upgrades for politicians."

PolitiFact has looked at the allegation and said it was "mostly false." The "office upgrades for politicians" allegation is based on Kaine's support of President Barack Obama's stimulus bill, part of which included a special bond program, called Build America Bonds, which was created to help state and local governments save money on capital projects. And Kaine had nothing to do with approval of the bonds in Kansas.

In Kansas, officials approved using the program to pay for $39 million of the Capitol renovation plan. The lower borrowing costs for the bonds would save Kansas about $840,000 in debt service costs, state officials said at the time it was approved in 2009.

Crossroads GPS has been criticized for ads in several states.

By Scott Rothschild

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Legislature will have plate full of meaty issues

Gov. Sam Brownback has promised to tackle just about every major aspect of state government in the legislative session that starts in January.

“It’s a big session, but we have a lot of needs,” Brownback said recently.

Asked if it may be a good time to ask the Republican-dominated Legislature to refrain from the controversial issues of immigration and abortion, Brownback, a Republican, said, “They’ll decide what they want to do on topics. We have a full-load agenda for the Legislature.”

On the issue of immigration, a group of Protestant and Catholic leaders has asked the Legislature to leave the matter to the federal government.

But Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican and national leader on passing anti-illegal immigration legislation in multiple states, said that isn’t going to happen.

There will be legislation aimed at stopping illegal immigration in Kansas during the 2012 session, Kobach said.

“I think one of the reasons is that there is just so much demand for it from constituents,” he said.

Also, he said, an E-Verify bill that has failed in the past in the Kansas Legislature is more likely to gain acceptance because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that upheld an Arizona law that requires employers use the E-Verify database system to check the immigration status of their workers.

During the 2011 session, legislation similar to another Arizona anti-illegal immigration law, and a bill to repeal in-state tuition for some undocumented students, was under consideration. Kobach has been a driving force behind both measures.

But advancement of those bills ground to a halt amid a national furor about remarks made by state Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro. During a House Appropriations Committee meeting, Peck compared illegal immigrants to feral hogs and said perhaps the state should shoot them from helicopters.

He later said he was joking and then apologized under pressure from Republican leaders.

In the 2012 session, Brownback will forward to the Legislature proposals to make major changes in taxes, Medicaid and school finance, in addition to the annual fight over state spending. All are guaranteed to generate much discussion. And the Legislature will also deal with funding problems with the public pension system, and the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional, legislative and State Board of Education district boundaries.

But Kobach said he doesn’t see anti-illegal immigration legislation getting crowded out because of all the other issues. The Legislature, he said, “can multitask.”

By Scott Rothschild

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Church leaders ask Kansas Legislature to stay out of illegal immigration reform

Religious leaders on Wednesday urged the Kansas Legislature to leave immigration reform to the federal government, and they said they supported allowing illegal immigrants to gain some kind of legal status.

The Most Rev. Joseph Naumann, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, and Bishop Scott Jones, Bishop of the Kansas Area of the United Methodist Church, said the vast majority of illegal immigrants are hard-working, God-loving and family-oriented.

“Our immigration policies are so restrictive. It makes it relatively impossible to legally immigrate to this country,” Naumann said. “There have to be ways to help them achieve legal status here, if not citizenship, perhaps a worker program that will allow them to achieve legal status.”

At the news conference, Naumann and Jones were asked by Renee Slinkard, of the Tea Party Immigration Coalition, why they would want to make it easier for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship “when we are faced with all this terrorism, crime, human trafficking.”

Naumann said that “bad actors” should be deported but that most illegal immigrants have no “ill intent.” He added that many are young people brought here as children who have no connection to any country but the United States.

Slinkard later said illegal immigrants should leave the country and “go to the back of the line to get their citizenship.”

Naumann and Jones, several other Catholic leaders, and Bishop Gerald Mansholt, Bishop of the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, signed a paper that asked people to be respectful to each other in debating the issue of illegal immigration.

The paper called for comprehensive reform at the federal level that would include securing the country’s borders and a process allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.

“We hope to shape a more civil conversation,” in Kansas and nationally, Jones said.

Proposals to crack down on illegal immigration are likely to be raised during the legislative session that starts in January.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, has been a national leader in writing controversial legislation aimed at illegal immigration in other states, such as SB 1070 in Arizona and Alabama’s new restrictions.

Naumann and Jones said they hoped to meet with Kobach some time to discuss the issue with him.

Contacted later by the Lawrence Journal-World, Kobach said he had read the document signed by the religious leaders and agreed with the portion that emphasized the importance of the rule of law. “There is a lot of common ground here,” Kobach said, but added that he disagreed with providing “amnesty.”

On Tuesday, the legislative champion of SB 1070 in Arizona, state Sen. Russell Pearce, was voted out of office.

He was defeated by fellow Republican Jerry Lewis in a recall election that many said was a referendum on SB 1070.

Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, said Pearce’s fate should cause state legislators to pause before trying to push through immigration legislation at the state level.

But Kobach said had Pearce faced Lewis in the Republican Party primary, Pearce would have won. And, he said, although Pearce was defeated, many more “pro-enforcement” candidates nationally have won.

By Scott Rothschild

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