Recent Kansas editorials

By

The Wichita Eagle, May 28

Court reforms overreach:

It says right in the Kansas Constitution that "the Supreme Court shall have general administrative authority over all courts in this state." Yet the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback recently took it upon themselves to take the power to control budgets and pick chief administrative district judges away from the high court.

So much for the 1970s unification of court administration that had favored central oversight and its efficient management of resources. Lawmakers and the governor decided on their own, with little public debate and no House Judiciary Committee hearing, to divvy up budget authority among the district courts, also passing along new administrative headaches and expense.

The Governor's Office added insult to the injury with its description of the historic and likely unconstitutional legislation in a media release: "funds the Kansas judiciary and includes items of reform."

The key word was "and." The law tied the extra dollars that the judiciary needed to function properly and avoid furloughs to the measures undercutting the Supreme Court.

Terming the law a "poor trade" in an extraordinary public statement after its signing, the Supreme Court also said that "it weakens the centralized authority of the Kansas unified court system in exchange for money to pay our employees and keep courts open," concluding: "We have very serious concerns about what will happen to the administration of justice in Kansas."

Speaking to The Eagle editorial board more recently, retired Supreme Court Justice Fred Six of Lawrence was even less measured. He called the law "an example of legislative and executive hubris" and "an overreach of both branches into the affairs of the third branch."

Asked how the law's constitutionality might be tested — and it should be — Six suggested someone in the judicial system affected by the change might have standing to challenge it. But he agreed that the law puts the state in uncharted waters.

One state in a similarly messy dispute over the separation of powers is New Mexico. Gov. Susana Martinez's recent veto of a pay increase for the state's judges prompted a lawsuit by a group of judges and two state lawmakers. Four members of the state's Supreme Court have recused themselves, with the fifth planning to seat a temporary panel to rule on the case directly affecting judicial compensation.

In what Six views as another "poke at the judicial branch," Kansas lawmakers complicated any legal challenge to the new law with an unusual non-severability clause saying that if "any provision of this act is stayed or is held to be invalid or unconstitutional" the whole law would be invalidated — meaning the court's added funding would evaporate.

Between the lines of the new law is obvious anger at the Supreme Court over how it has ruled in recent years on school funding and other issues. What should deeply concern Kansans is how the Legislature and governor expressed that anger — with a law of questionable constitutionality doubling as payback and a brushback pitch.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, June 3

Army parole officers:

Kansas parole officers want the state to provide them with weapons and training so they can protect themselves as they interact with convicted felons.

Parole officers say their job is dangerous — they deal with the same people the judicial system has sent to prison — and the arms and training are justified.

But the Kansas Department of Corrections says no and reportedly has cited the cost as a factor.

It is an issue on which we should have an opinion one way or the other. But we don't because we don't have enough information.

The attorney representing the parole officers cites two incidents in support of arming the officers due to the danger they face. In one incident, which occurred in December, a man whose parole had ended broke a window to reach a second-story ledge of the state parole office in Wichita. The man fell to the sidewalk, without suffering serious injury, during a struggle with officers who were trying to bring him back into the building through a window.

Just how having a weapon, and pulling it, would have improved that situation remains a mystery.

The second incident, also in Wichita, occurred in May when a parole officer went to a home to give a parolee a routine notice to report to his parole officer. Another man, who had recently gotten off parole, and the subject of the visit beat the parole officer, according to a police report. The parole officer suffered bruising and swelling on his left cheek.

What the public doesn't know is how a gun would have improved the situation.

Obviously, the parole officer didn't deserve a beating and nothing here is an attempt to make light of his situation.

However, one incident does not make a case for arming the state's parole officers. If such things happen frequently, the public needs to know about it. Most people probably think that parolees are told as they leave prison when to report to their parole officer and that most meetings occur at the parole office.

If the parole officers and their representative have more compelling evidence to justify arming the officers, they need to present it. As it is, one parole officer with a bruised cheek hasn't been enough to convince the corrections department to part with the money necessary to arm and train the officers. The public also is unlikely to side with the parole officers based on the scant evidence available.

The lack of evidence in support of arming the parole officers causes one to wonder if the officers don't actually have some other goal here, and what it might be.

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The Hutchinson News, May 31

Pauls finally finds her way to the right party:

At long last, Rep. Jan Pauls has come out of the closet and declared herself a Republican after so many years serving in the Kansas Legislature as a Democrat.

The only real surprise in her Friday announcement is that it took her so long to come forward with what just about everyone else in her district knew years ago: She's truly a Republican who has spent much of her political career masquerading as a Democrat.

For a long while, Pauls didn't have much trouble disguising her true political identity. In those days, however, the political world deployed a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it came to party identity. These days, political parties expect their members to think and act like true party people — or face a primary challenge from someone who can produce better credentials as a conservative or liberal.

During a Friday afternoon news conference, Pauls said her switch was largely because of her beliefs on social issues and that she was tired of the party working against her. During the 2012 election, Pauls was nearly defeated in the primary by an exceedingly weak Democratic challenger, her votes on gay rights and religious liberties legislation taking center stage.

This year, facing a three-way race against Brian E. Davis and Chris Givan, Pauls apparently recognized she couldn't maintain her Democratic facade much longer.

The Republican Party didn't waste any time welcoming the newly-outed Pauls into the GOP fold with open arms, eagerly accepting a former Democrat as one of their own.

"Pleased to welcome Rep. Pauls to the Republican Caucus!" the Kansas House GOP Twitter feed read shortly after the announcement. "Longest serving Rep who was left behind by her party."

Even House Speaker Ray Merrick and Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce lined up to welcome proudly their newest party member.

However, based on the GOP's cannibalistic nature, one wonders how long a former Democrat, even one who often behaved more like a Republican, can survive in the who-can-be-the-most-conservative world of GOP primary politics. Even longtime, solid Republicans struggle to hold their ground in this state once they earn the label of "moderate" and the target that comes with it.

But as of Friday, Pauls is out and proud to be a member of the Republican Party. No more shame, fear or worry that her true nature will be discovered by the electorate. Yet time will tell if she'll be accepted by her new friends.

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Lawrence Journal-World, June 1

A small first step on mental health services:

The dedication of any new state funds to programs that serve Kansans with mental illness is good news, but Gov. Sam Brownback's $9.5 million mental health initiative falls well short of restoring the funding that the state's community mental health centers have lost in recent years.

The biggest portion of the funding — $7 million — comes from the state's federally funded block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and will be earmarked to expand the state's family preservation efforts. Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said last week her department hadn't determined exactly how those funds will be used but the goal would be to keep families together and find employment and treatment for people with mental illness.

The remaining $2.5 million in the governor's initiative will be directed at some laudable goals including support for substance-abuse treatment facilities and grants to help keep people with mental illness out of jail, prison and state hospitals. Of that $2.5 million, just $1 million will go to strengthen programs for the uninsured at the state's community mental health centers.

In a column in the May issue of his organization's newsletter, Randall Allen, executive director of the Kansas Association of Counties, points to some numbers that put that $1 million in perspective. Since 2007, he wrote, the state's 27 licensed community mental health centers, have seen a $15 million reduction in mental health reform grants from the state, along with a $31.2 million reduction in money from the state general fund alone and $52.2 million from all state funds.

In the last 10 years, Allen wrote, patient loads at the community centers have doubled, largely as a result of efforts to move people with mental illness out of institutions and into community settings. Since 2007, he said, those centers have seen a 24 percent increase in the overall number of people served, and the majority of those people are uninsured.

Allen's organization is particularly interested in this situation because county governments have stepped up to fill part of that funding gap, but local county appropriations for mental health services have grown by only $2.2 million since 2007, so community centers are still significantly behind.

Mental health advocates said Brownback's plan was a step forward but decried the state's decision not to expand Medicaid coverage for the mentally ill. A National Alliance on Mental Illness analysis last year estimated that more than 21,000 mentally ill and uninsured Kansans would be eligible for Medicaid if the expansion was approved. That money would benefit not only the individuals but the community mental health centers that provide their care.

Brownback's initiative responds to a list of recommendations from a task force he appointed in the wake of elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Mental health services have become a public safety as well as a public health issue. According to the Health Care Foundation of Kansas City, untreated severe mental illness in Kansas costs the private sector, including employers, nearly $429 million a year; the total annual cost to the state in terms of care and lost productivity is $1.17 billion.

That doesn't include the vast human toll on Kansans with mental illness and their families. The governor's initiative is a step in the right direction, but more help is needed.

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