The Wichita Eagle, Oct. 13
Headed for school-funding showdown?
It will surprise no one if the Kansas Supreme Court again sides with school districts and says the state is underfunding K-12 education. But because the Statehouse is a very different place than it was the last time the court ordered a funding increase, Kansas then could see a showdown that would make the federal shutdown seem tame.
Imagine Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative leaders denouncing and then defying the court, and further undermining its authority with legislation to change how justices are chosen, when they must retire and how much say courts have over school finance and other issues.
Envision a new zeal to justify spending less on K-12 education by reforming it to allow vouchers and more charter schools and to shift more funding responsibility to locals.
And think of how the high court might escalate the conflict, which last time included a threat to shut down schools (a power lawmakers subsequently tried to legislate away).
It would be a disaster for Kansas and potentially Brownback, who is up for re-election next year.
During three hours of oral arguments last week, the state's attorneys ably tried to persuade the justices that a three-judge special court panel got it wrong in January in ruling that funding is unconstitutionally low and in ordering the Legislature to "begin to effect a cure to the constitutional deficiencies" by increasing base state aid from the current $3,838 per student to $4,492. The state was on track to meet that latter benchmark, based on the Legislature's own cost studies and set by statute for "2009-10 and each school year thereafter," until cuts began under the previous governor amid the recession. Wichita USD 259 alone has had to cut more than $50 million, including by axing teaching jobs and closing schools.
"If that promise had been kept, we wouldn't be here," commented Justice Eric Rosen during the hearing, of the $4,492 commitment.
Complying now could cost at least $440 million a year - a sum more than the $430 million in current state reserves, and hard to come by as the massive 2012 income-tax cuts sharply reduce revenues. In fact, the state's defense is badly weakened this time by the passage of those tax cuts, which clearly mattered more to the governor and legislative leaders than any constitutional obligation to make schools whole.
As Wichita attorney Alan Rupe argued for the districts: "They took all the resources out of the system and then stand here and plead that they can't afford to increase funding to schools."
And because the Kansas Constitution's language requiring the state to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state" has not changed since the last school-finance showdown ended seven years ago, the court can be expected to concur with the lower court panel and, in effect, itself.
It will be up to state leaders to play their roles responsibly after the high court releases its decision in a few months, and for Kansans to make sure that public schools are as highly valued at the Statehouse as they are statewide.
The Hutchinson News, Oct. 11
Kobach's latest fraud
Secretary of State wants to create two-tiered system of voting
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach just can't seem to quit tinkering with perceived voter ID and fraud issues. One would think that they are all his office deals with, though Kobach's duties go well beyond being the chief elections officer in the state.
Kobach's latest irritant is what he sees as the difference between federal and state elections and who is allowed to vote. The two-tiered system he is proposing would let Kansans who have proved their citizenship to vote in congressional and state elections. Those who meet only federal voting standards, which do not have the voter ID requirement, could vote in federal elections but not state.
That's the Kobach way. It is a convoluted system that clearly underscores the secretary's "my way or the highway" views of making voting a chore instead of an honor.
Both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have declared that voters who use the federal form do not have to provide ID to prove their voting rights. But Kobach turns the other way when faced with issues that conflict with his beliefs.
His office sent a memo to all election officials in the state that outlined procedures to identify and track voters who use the federal form for voter registration. Kobach's mandate would create a separate category for voters eligible only to vote in congressional and presidential elections.
"Many counties probably have had very few federal forms submitted over the years," Election Director Brad Bryant stated in a memo to county officials. "(But) this means you should take note when a federal form comes to your office and keep a list of the names of individuals who submit them. ..."
Few use the federal form, as Bryant noted, which is eerily similar to the scenario when Kobach originally proposed the state's voter ID law. There were only a handful of voter fraud cases, and most hinged on misidentification not out and out fraud. Kobach made it seem at the time that fraud was rampant in the state when it was not.
Kobach seems intent on making voting less and less appealing and adding to the already burdensome workload of county election officials. Some county officials declined comment in a Wichita Eagle story. Others did not hold back.
"It would be a nightmare for us," Sherman County Clerk Janet Rumpel said.
Clearly Kobach wants to assert his unsolicited and questionable political views on federal voting guidelines, which undoubtedly he thinks should include additional proof of citizenship beyond what already is required.
The Salina Journal, Oct. 11
Great American desert
For years, Kansas and Nebraska have squabbled over water, because for years Nebraska irrigators have pumped too much water from the massive Ogallala Aquifer. The result has been reduced streamflow in the Republican River, which feeds from Nebraska into Kansas. After it lost a federal challenge by Kansas on the issue, Nebraska had two choices to restore some of that streamflow to the Republican: Shut down a whole lot of irrigators and devastate a large chunk of their economy, or pump more water. They chose the latter option.
According to Journal reporter Tim Unruh's story in Sunday's edition, starting this year, Nebraska has been pumping 13,000 gallons a minute out of the Ogallala in western Nebraska and sending it downstream toward Kansas.
Think about that. Nebraska's response to overpumping water from the aquifer is to pump even more water: more than 6.8 billion gallons a year of a finite resource that's the lifeblood of the Great Plains economy.
And the amount being pumped is scheduled to grow significantly as Nebraska tries to meet its obligation.
That's a terrible decision made even worse by the fact that 30 to 50 percent of that water will never reach Kansas but will be lost due to evaporation, seepage back into the ground and plant life along the stream.
The aquifer, which comes from snowmelt and other runoff from the Rocky Mountains, recharges at a rate of a half-inch a year in western Kansas, slightly more in western Nebraska. Some estimates are that we've used about 30 percent of the aquifer.
The decline in surface water is exacerbated by such farming methods as terracing and no-till farming, both of which help capture water that might run down stream.
Gov. Sam Brownback told Unruh that instead of what Nebraska is doing, "We'd like a natural and sustainable long-term answer in the river system." He's right.
For decades, people have talked about preserving the Ogallala, but we're not making substantial progress. Irrigators and government will have to come together to find better solutions than what was forced upon Nebraska. Right now we have options; soon we won't.
But no matter how you look at it, pumping more water out of the aquifer because you've pumped too much water wouldn't seem to be a long-term answer. Not unless we're looking for a return of the Great American Desert.
Being able to vote for congressional candidates and the president while being denied the privilege of voting in state elections is a two-tiered, convoluted mess that ought to be voted out.
The Garden City Telegram, Oct. 8'Court move
A recent setback for Sunflower Electric Power Corp. understandably fueled the ire of local officials.
On Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's decision to issue a permit for expansion of Sunflower's power plant at Holcomb — a project that has drawn strong opposition from environmentalists who question coal-fired power plant emissions.
The ruling sends Sunflower's permit request back to the KDHE to consider more recent, stricter standards before granting a new permit. Sunflower officials vowed to push on toward the $2.2 billion project that would add an 895-megawatt coal-fired plant.
In response to the court ruling, Holcomb Mayor Gary Newman understandably questioned why a federal government supposedly interested in lessening dependence on foreign oil and developing a more diversified energy portfolio wouldn't support a Sunflower plan with cutting-edge, pollution-gathering technology.
Matt Allen, city manager for Garden City, rightly noted how the Sunflower expansion would help ensure adequate baseload energy, and affordability for consumers.
Finney County Economic Development Corp. President Lona DuVall had cause to question opponents' criticism of power being sent out of Kansas — a state eager to export crops, aircraft and more — and on to a significant number of users in Colorado,
The expansion also would create some 2,000 jobs during peak construction, and about 200 new full- and part-time jobs when operational.
Unlike folks on the front line who understand the need to strike a balance between affordability, reliability of energy sources and environmental responsibility, opponents have fixated only on the environment. They show too little regard for how utilities would address future energy needs in ways that best serve consumers.
While everyone should want to protect the environment, the goal should be producing affordable energy from a variety of sources, coal included, to meet demand while reducing emissions. In addressing environmental concerns, Sunflower voluntarily pursued innovative plans to slash carbon dioxide emissions.
Utilities have an obligation to meet demand in an affordable way while pursuing technology that reduces emissions. The Sunflower project would do as much, something opponents still fail to acknowledge in their stubborn quest to block the expansion plan.