The Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 27
Legislators and the Kansas Open Meetings Act:
On more than one occasion over the past several months, this space has been used to criticize legislators for their lack of knowledge about the Kansas Open Meetings Act or their indifference for it.
Fair is fair, and it now is time to acknowledge progress is being made and some legislators are scheduled for refresher courses — or introductory courses, depending upon who sits in — on KOMA.
The Kansas Attorney General's Office is scheduled to provide KOMA training to House Republicans on Jan. 17 and Senate Democrats have planned a KOMA education program for Jan.15, to be presented by someone from the revisor's office or the attorney general's office, or both.
The Kansas Open Meetings Act prohibits the majority of a legislative body, including legislative committees, from meeting behind closed doors to discuss business.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, caucus chairwoman for House Democrats, said that group didn't have anything scheduled as yet on KOMA education but generally covers the topic whenever it meets. Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said Senate Republicans don't have any KOMA training in the works but also hasn't made plans for it first caucus.
Ballard and Bruce would do well to schedule the training, and leaders of the House Republicans and Senate Democrats are to be commended for taking steps to educate their parties' members.
Instrumental to our form of government at the federal, state and local levels are the requirements that our elected leaders conduct business in view of the public during open meetings and that most government records also are open to the public.
Kansas' open meetings and public records laws were put in place to ensure those requirements are met. Legislators should want to be well-versed on both laws.
Many Republican legislators weren't sufficiently well-versed to avoid the appearance, at the very least, of impropriety earlier this year when they attended private dinners at the governor's residence. The dinners sparked an investigation by Shawnee Country District Attorney Chad Taylor's office and the subsequent report found technical violations of KOMA but said there was insufficient evidence to prove more substantive violations.
Given the current makeup of the Legislature, Senate or House Democrats alone couldn't violate KOMA's prohibition on a majority of a legislative body, or a legislative committee, meeting behind closed doors. Democrats definitely are the minority in both chambers.
Republicans are not, and Senate Republicans should take advantage of the opportunity extended by the attorney general's office to also become knowledgeable about the law.
And even though they are in the minority, House Democrats could find themselves at meetings outside the Statehouse also attended by Republicans, which could put KOMA into play.
There's simply no reason any legislator shouldn't have a thorough understanding of the law.
The Kansas City Star, Dec. 27
Gov. Brownback and the conservative-dominated Legislature:
No area politician had a bigger 2012 than Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
With a heavy dose of persuasion and a shake of trickery, he convinced the Legislature to drastically reduce state income taxes.
His administration shook off concerns of "too much, too fast" and forged ahead with a massive privatization of the state's Medicaid program.
And a political apparatus closely tied to the governor purged the Kansas Senate of most moderate Republicans, who had united with the small contingent of Democrats to block some of Brownback's initiatives.
Two years into his first term, Brownback has the uber-conservative Legislature that he wanted and a glide path for more big changes.
Lawmakers are almost certain to pass an ill-advised bill giving the governor the authority to select judges for the state appeals court, injecting politics into a merit-based system that works.
Public school administrators and teachers are nervously awaiting a report from Brownback's "school efficiency task force," a committee top-heavy with accountants and light on educators.
More restrictions on abortion clinics and providers may be in the offing.
But even as he breaks new ground in 2013, Brownback and all of Kansas will be dealing with the fallout from 2012.
The income tax cuts that the governor and his allies fought for so passionately will create a deep hole in the state's budget. The gap between revenues and expenses is projected to be $295 million — and that's assuming the state spends down a reserve fund of $470 million, leaving no cushion for future years.
The Medicaid overhaul is scheduled to take effect on New Year's Day, despite a deep-seated foreboding among medical and social service providers. Two weeks before the scheduled start of the new initiative, known as KanCare, some hospitals and physician groups had not yet signed up with all or any of the three private insurance companies selected to coordinate the care of 380,000 Medicaid recipients.
The insurance companies are ramping up, nevertheless, hiring dozens of employees from state-funded social service and medical support groups but at much higher salaries. Concerns are mounting about how the three managed care companies — Amerigroup, United Healthcare and Sunflower State Health Plan, a subsidiary of Centene — will pay their overhead and make a profit without reducing the amount of services Kansans rely on.
The massive budget and health care challenges will fall into the laps of a remarkably inexperienced Legislature. Thanks to redistricting and the purge of veteran moderate Republicans, nearly one-third of the state's lawmakers will be serving their first terms.
Many of them were elected not on the basis of experience serving their communities but rather on the strength of their conservative credentials, which garnered funding from Brownback's deep-pocketed benefactors. They will quickly find themselves in public service boot camp.
That age-old adage "do no harm" would be a good guide for the 2013 Kansas legislative session. Brownback and lawmakers would do well to keep a close eye on the KanCare program and to shy away from measures that will erode quality schools and gut what is left of the safety net.
The advice comes a year too late, however. The hasty passage of the income tax cuts and the hurried start of KanCare are likely to haunt the state for a long time to come.
Lawrence Journal-World, Dec. 27
Elections and accountability:
A report recently released about serious problems Sedgwick County experienced during the November elections may bolster the argument for having county commissioners, rather than the Kansas secretary of state, appoint top election officials in the state's largest counties.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced Dec. 21 that his office had completed its investigation of why Nov. 6 election results were delayed for hours at the Sedgwick County election office in Wichita. Kobach determined that insufficient training on the vote-counting software caused workers in the office to report early returns from advance and absentee ballots as the full and final count. He also noted that, although similar problems had occurred during the Aug. 6 primary, "sufficient steps were not taken" to identify and correct the problems.
Kobach's recommendation was that Sedgwick County increase the number of employees at the election office and provide intensive training for those employees in how to use the vote-counting software. Money for that additional staff and training will have to be provided through the Sedgwick County budget, which presents an interesting connection to legislation that Democratic leaders say they will propose in the upcoming session.
Currently, elected county clerks run elections in 101 of the state's 105 counties. In the state's four largest counties — Sedgwick, Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee — elections are run by election commissioners appointed by the secretary of state. The purpose of the law probably was to ensure that elections in the largest counties are run in a professional and efficient manner. The downside to the system, however, is that it makes election commissioners in those counties less responsible to the local voters and county commissioners who fund their operations and depend on them to run their elections. The legislation proposed by Senate Majority Leader Anthony Hensley would require county commissioners in those counties to hire their own election commissioners and address all problems arising from the general election.
Since he took office in 2010, Kobach has appointed two election commissioners: one in Sedgwick County and one in Shawnee County. It may be simply coincidence, but both of those counties had serious election problems this year. Shawnee County had a significant dispute after a number of Topeka voters received the wrong ballots during the August primary.
This year could have been an aberration, but the fact remains that election commissioners hired by elected county commissioners would be more accountable to the officials and voters most affected by the work they do. The secretary of state may be unhappy about election glitches, but no one is more unhappy than county commissioners and voters who are concerned and embarrassed by debacles like the one that occurred in Wichita this year.
The Wichita Eagle, Dec. 27
Sedgwick County's election night fiasco:
Prompt and accurate election results aren't just some nicety that Sedgwick County has come to expect.
In its autopsy of Sedgwick County's fiasco of an election night, Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office found the need for more employees and training but no need to replace his chosen election commissioner, Tabitha Lehman. He'd better ensure that changes are made, because a botched 2013 municipal election would be Lehman's third strike.
The report by a four-member task force from Kobach's office badly understated what happened on Nov. 6, saying that "results were not posted on the county's website as early as expected or as early as had been accomplished in prior years."
Prompt and accurate election results aren't just some nicety that Sedgwick County has come to expect. They are a necessity.
And the confusing first results on Nov. 6 weren't released until nearly 11 p.m. — four hours after the polls had closed and half an hour after the presidential election had been decided — with no way to tell how many precincts were included. The office's final unofficial totals didn't come until after 1:30 a.m.
Candidates and voters in Sedgwick County were especially impatient and incredulous as they waited, because the general election had been a second chance for Lehman after the problematic August primary, when precinct totals also had been wrong early on and final tallies hadn't come until 11:15 p.m.
If avoiding the problem with the precinct totals was as simple as "checking a box on the screen during tabulation," as the report concludes, Lehman and Kobach should have made every effort to get the box checked. Yet it happened again.
Some of the report's promising recommendations sound like things the office should have been doing anyway, such as counting advance votes before the polls close on Election Day and doing more test runs of voting procedures.
The task force found that Sedgwick County's election office is badly understaffed when compared with those in Johnson, Shawnee and Wyandotte counties — not surprising, considering that the office's budget has been reduced by 37 percent since 2008. Cuts have consequences.
It also recommended more training on the software that operates the voting equipment, as it raised the question of whether former Election Commissioner Bill Gale's drastic 70 percent reduction of polling places in 2006 went too far. The report suggests adding polls for gubernatorial and presidential elections.
Predictably, one thing the postelection report did not recommend was a rewriting of the state law that gives the secretary of state the power to appoint the election commissioners in Sedgwick, Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee counties. But that should be on the table for legislators.
If Sedgwick County's recent experience teaches anything, it's that the state's largest counties deserve more say, and accountability, in who runs their elections.
Meanwhile, though, Lehman, Kobach and Sedgwick County commissioners should be partners in getting the office the resources necessary to handle future elections, starting with the Feb. 26 primary for municipal and school board races. The suspense on election night should concern who is winning, not whether the results will ever come.