Recent Kansas editorials

By By The Associated Press

Lawrence Journal-World, Dec. 26

Ensuring a water supply for western Kansas:

Dramatic declines in groundwater levels have been recorded for the last two years in the High Plains Aquifer in western Kansas, and when Kansas Geological Survey crews head west this winter, they likely will find a continuation of that trend.

In the coming months, KGS researchers hope to measure 1,407 wells in the aquifer region of central and western Kansas. Similar measurements taken for the last eight year have shown a steady decline in the aquifer levels. The 3.5-foot drop recorded earlier this year was the highest for the eight years — exceeded only by the 4.25-foot drop measured in 2012.

Five years of drought in the western third of the state have taken their toll on the aquifer. Declining water levels could threaten not only agriculture, but municipal water supplies.

A lot of people laughed when state water officials rolled out a proposal last month to study the feasibility of the "Kansas Aqueduct Project" to transport water from the Missouri River in the northeast corner of the state to western Kansas. The idea was to draw water out of the Missouri River during high water flows and transport it about 360 miles through a series of lift stations and canals.

The idea, admittedly, is farfetched. Not only is Missouri likely to have something to say about siphoning water out of the river that forms the boundary between the two states, but officials also put the cost of the project at somewhere between $12.5 billion and $25 billion.

Nonetheless, officials with the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deserve some credit for looking at long-term solutions for what otherwise could be a disastrous development for western Kansas. A 360-mile canal may not be the answer, but there are no easy answers to this situation short of an unexpected long-term change in the area's weather patterns.

There are certain things Kansas officials might be able to control, but they can't control Mother Nature. Keeping an eye on aquifer levels may help them make a case for significant changes in the region's agriculture and irrigation practices. Or maybe there's another solution. The canal plan may seem ridiculous, but, considering the bleak picture that seems to be emerging, it only makes sense to look at all the possibilities.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 30

State's drug testing program must produce or be eliminated:

It is way too early to hazard a guess as to how many welfare recipients will fail state-administered drug tests when the testing program goes into effect July 1, or how much the state will save by eliminating assistance payments to drug users.

If Kansas' experience is similar to that of some other states, however, it will find itself spending more money on administering the testing program than it saves.

According to a Kansas City Star report, Missouri spent $500,000 in eight months and found fewer than two dozen drug users among its cash assistance recipients, although it must be noted 200 people declined to be tested. At the same time, 32,000 people have applied for assistance since testing began, an indication that most people who seek assistance aren't afraid to be tested.

Florida initiated a drug testing plan a few years ago, and the early reports there indicated the state was spending a lot more money on the testing than it was saving because fewer people than anticipated were failing the tests.

Granted, there is another angle to Kansas' plan. It also is championed as a way to help drug users kick their habit. Cash assistance recipients who fail an initial drug test must complete a drug treatment and job skills program, paid for with federal welfare funds. A second failed test will result in the loss of benefits for a year, and a third failed test will result in permanent loss of benefits.

Encouraging people to stop using illegal drugs is a worthy goal, regardless of where they're getting the money to finance their habit. But it's obvious that the legislators who passed the state's drug testing bill expect the program to uncover a lot more drug users than is likely given the results of programs in other states.

Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, says some people won't apply for benefits if they think they'll test positive and that should be considered when it's time to evaluate the state's testing program.

No, it shouldn't. There's no way to measure the number of people who don't apply because they fear a drug test. Applying some arbitrary figure to phantom savings is simply a cover mechanism if the plan actually cost more than the demonstrated savings.

Kansas' plan will cost $1 million to implement, including $600,000 in computer upgrades, and projections are it will save the state $700,000.

Let the testing begin. If it saves the state money and gets some people off drugs, great. But if the cost of testing far exceeds the savings, legislators should end the program.

There's no reason to toss good money after bad.

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The Kansas City Star, Dec. 27

Much rides on the future of Kansas public school funding:

A decision by a three-judge panel hit with a boom on Jan. 11, 2013, and has reverberated ever since in Kansas political and educational circles.

Once again, a court ruled that the Kansas Legislature has violated the state constitution by underfunding public schools. If the judicial panel's decision is allowed to stand, it could set off a constitutional crisis in addition to worsening the state's already perilous budget situation.

A reversal, though, would send the wrong message to lawmakers and possibly encourage them to invest even less in educating children.

We probably won't have to wait long for the completion of the next chapter. The Kansas Supreme Court, which heard the case on appeal, is expected to make public its ruling early in 2014.

The Legislature's failure to adequately pay for public education is a long-running Kansas story. The Supreme Court in 2005 ordered lawmakers to put more money into school financing. Conservatives bitterly decried the ruling, but finally settled on increasing allocations for three years until they were funding schools by an additional $755 million annually.

The state kept its word for two school years. Then the recession hit. Starting in the 2009 school year, Kansas cut funding to its elementary and secondary schools by more than $500 million. After rising to a high of $4,438 per pupil in the 2008-09 school year, base state aid is now $3,812.

Such is the lack of confidence in Kansas' will and ability to properly fund public education that when Gov. Sam Brownback recently said he would like to move to universal all-day kindergarten, people instantly wondered what other essential classroom services would be cut to pay for full-day classes.

By rashly signing off on deep income tax cuts, the Republican governor and the conservative-dominated Legislature have worked themselves into a corner from which few good options are possible.

Assuming the Supreme Court upholds the district court panel's ruling, as expected, the Legislature would have to choose compliance or defiance.

To reach the level of funding agreed upon in 2005 would cost an additional $450 million a year. That would require the Legislature to either cut too deeply into the reserve fund, or take more money from other underfunded services, such as colleges and universities or prisons.

Some legislative leaders have said they would ignore an order from the state's high court, trotting out the old argument that the judiciary has no business telling lawmakers how to spend money.

But the Kansas constitution says that the legislature must make "suitable provision" for financing public schools, and the business of the courts is to uphold the state constitution. It's difficult to predict what a standoff would mean for the state, other than vast amounts of taxpayer money spent on legal fees.

The best course would be for the Legislature to roll back some of the income tax cuts that have decimated the state budget and forced Kansans to pay more in sales taxes and property taxes.

Unfortunately, too many lawmakers are still beholden to the myth that income tax cuts are the road to a job-creating economy. More than a year after the cuts took effect, we're not seeing the promised turnaround in Kansas. But a number of conservatives would have to be unseated in the August and November elections to force a reversal of the income tax cuts.

The school funding debate is expected to play a role in Brownback's re-election bid against his presumed Democratic opponent, state Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence. And it will surely be part of conservatives' ongoing attempts to undercut the independence of the courts by doing away with the nonpartisan judicial selection process.

Brownback understands very well the high stakes of the expected Supreme Court decision. It will likely fall to him to lead the Legislature to some course of action. His ability to do so will loom large in his political future.

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The Hays Daily News, Dec. 26

Public health:

When Kansas was ranked the most vulnerable state in the nation in 2012 when it comes to infectious disease threats, officials decried the assessment.

"The report does not provide an accurate and thorough picture of the state's readiness to respond to health emergencies, disasters and terrorism," Gov. Sam Brownback said about the annual snapshot produced by Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy organization, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"No matter the score, the report presents a skewed view of public health readiness, draws inaccurate conclusions and in no way indicates the actual preparedness level in Kansas," said Dr. Robert Moser, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The study, which measures states' ability to deal with public health threats such as foodborne illnesses, infectious diseases, bio-terrorism and extreme weather events, concluded Kansas only met three of the 10 criteria established.

In 2013 this year Kansas fared a little better, hitting four of the metrics. The Sunflower State ranks near the bottom, but at least we're not last any longer.

State officials hardly are celebrating. But apparently they're not working to improve the situation either. Instead, rebuttals and dismissals of the report continue.

A spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Miranda Steele, said the report does not offer a "comprehensive look" at the state's public health system.

That might be the case, but the indicators measured seem valid enough to at least warrant attention.

The report states: "Fighting infectious disease requires constant vigilance. Policies and resources must be in place to allow scientists and public health and medical experts to have the tools they need to control ongoing outbreaks — such as HIV/AIDs, bacterial infections in hospitals and foodborne illnesses; detect new or reemerging outbreaks — such as middle east Respiratory syndrome (meRs), whooping cough and drug-resistant infections; and even monitor for potential bioterrorist threats — such as anthrax or smallpox."

Worldwide, infectious diseases are the leading cause of death of people younger than 60. In the United States, millions of Americans contract infectious diseases every year. Public safety issues demand attention and funding from government. This isn't one of those areas to cut when the limited-government factions dominate a statehouse.

Yet decreasing public health funding is precisely what is happening in Topeka. Last year's 4-percent cut marked the third straight year of declines. In this study, such a pattern lowers the state's score.

Another metric in the study is whether 90 percent of 19- to 35-month-old children are vaccinated against whooping cough. Kansas managed to reach 79 percent. KDHE might dismiss this measuring stick as well, but should examine whether it's related to the state's incidence rate of pertussis being almost twice the national average.

Vaccinating Kansans of all ages against the seasonal flu is supposed to hit 50 percent of the population; Kansas vaccinated 40.7 percent.

Kansas also scored a zero for its efforts to combat the spread of the human papillomavirus. HPV is a significant cause of cervical, genital and oropharyngeal cancer but since it's also the most common sexually transmitted infection, conservative governments often opt against dedicating resources to fight it.

A senior fellow at the Kansas Health Institute, Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, said the TFAH report is valuable because "it raises important issues that we should be talking about."

But Kansas isn't doing that. Rather than dealing with the message, Topeka is choosing to attack the messenger.

While we would agree the Brownback administration is under no obligation to respond to every study some non-profit organization chooses to research and publish, simply dismissing this particular report isn't the correct approach either. Improving the overall public health of Kansas should be something that interests everybody.

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