The Wichita Eagle, Oct. 31
State fund raids continuing:
They always seem like good ideas at the time — laws requiring cash to be stashed away for rainy days, important priorities or just fiscal prudence into the future. But there's no such thing as spare change in Topeka anymore, which makes these dedicated funds ripe for sweeping and ends up turning the legislators who voted for them into liars.
One new case of foresight undone by reality was the 2005 law creating the Kansas Oil and Gas Valuation Depletion Fund. The goal was to provide counties whose tax base is heavily reliant on energy production with a safety net for industry downturns, when they could draw down severance taxes set aside during the booms. But Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed a 2012 bill aimed at preventing the state from raiding the fund. Fifty counties sued in 2013, claiming the state withheld $7.6 million in payments they were due. Then the 2014 Legislature finally gave the governor what he wanted, abolishing the fund and calling for the transfer of any leftover money to the state general fund.
In October the final payments went out to counties, 16 of which in western Kansas saw their total property values decrease by more than 20 percent this year because of low energy prices, according to Associated Press. So just when the oil and gas trust fund is needed most for exactly its intended purpose, it's gone.
Similarly, multiple governors and legislatures have treated the Kansas Endowment for Youth Fund like a suggestion rather than a designated reserve. It was set up as a way to invest and grow part of the $1.6 billion proceeds of the multistate tobacco settlement, and to fuel programs to benefit children long after the annual payments lapse. But in the past 15 years the fund has been raided of about $200 million, such that its balance could dwindle to $140,000 by fiscal 2017. Brownback didn't start this thievery but has kept it up contrary to his recent stated desire to coordinate and improve early childhood education in Kansas.
The 10-year, $8 billion transportation plan passed in 2010 provides the biggest target for raiding, of course, and has been tapped for more than $400 million since fiscal 2013. No wonder the Kansas Contractors Association has two billboards along the Kansas Turnpike featuring an armed man in a ski mask and the message: "This is highway robbery $1 million per day taken from roads and bridges."
State budget problems over the years have made other earmarked funds vulnerable, with fees paid to state agencies and local government revenue sharing among the casualties. There are new concerns that a 40-year-old fund that diffuses the cost of medical malpractice claims could be swept. And with the challenge in the wake of the 2012 income tax cuts and precipitous revenue slide that of keeping the state budget above water, it's easy to forget that state law requires a 7.5 percent ending balance.
Current and past state leaders have defended the fund raids as necessary. But each one is a broken promise.
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nov. 1
Early education emphasized:
Randy Watson, Kansas education commissioner, said last week the state's children need to be prepared for kindergarten and students seeking technical education shouldn't be seen as second-class citizens.
He is right on both counts, and it is worth noting that his thinking is aligned with that of Gov. Sam Brownback, who has emphasized since his first election early-childhood education and the need to enroll more young people in technical training programs.
It is no secret the governor and legislative leaders and the Kansas State Board of Education haven't always been on the same page on some issues over the past several years. Watson, selected last year by Kansas State Board of Education members to lead the Department of Education, might be the right person to get those different interests working together toward the same goal.
Although The Topeka Capital-Journal has never viewed students seeking a technical education as second-class citizens, we agree with Watson that no one else should either.
Certainly, no one who has recently paid a plumber, electrician, mechanic, carpenter or heavy equipment operator would consider those people second-class citizens in terms of earnings. They make a respectable income, and deservedly so. Those of us who enjoy our modern conveniences and the latest technology would be hard-pressed to keep everything functioning properly without the assistance of skilled professionals.
That said, students interested in that educational track need to be prepared for learning when they enter kindergarten. Acquiring the reading, math and comprehension skills needed to further any educational pursuit is a process that must begin early for the greatest success.
Students who can't read at grade-level in early elementary school will find it difficult to earn a diploma for a technical school or a four-year university.
Watson says the education department and state board of education are going to focus on how every student K-12 and beyond can be successful. That will require emphasis on kindergarten readiness, high school graduation rates, higher education completion rates and the amount of remedial work needed by college students.
It appears as though the education commissioner is off to a good start after almost a year on the job.
And in education, getting off to a good start is important.
Lawrence Journal-World, Nov. 1
Kansas officials need to solve problem of high turnover among social workers:
Douglas County Judge Peggy Kittel cited an example of a child who recently appeared in her courtroom and had been in the state's child welfare system for two years. During that time, turnover at the agency that contracts with the state to provide case management services for such children had resulted in seven different case workers being assigned to resolve problems so the child could return home or to find another placement for that child.
Each of those case workers may have been doing his or her best to help this child, but, with so much turnover, how can they make much progress? Kittel said she couldn't pinpoint the reason for the high turnover. "I don't know if they're overwhelmed by the type of cases we're dealing with, or if their case loads are too high or they're not getting enough support . But it's affecting our ability to help these families in crisis."
Even if this was an isolated incident, it would be a serious concern, but officials with the Kansas Department of Children and Families indicate that Douglas County and KVC Behavioral Healthcare, the state's local contractor, are not alone in this problem. A DCF representative told the Journal-World that fewer people are applying for and accepting positions at child welfare agencies across the state. To help deal with that situation, she said, the department is "offering incentives" to try to retain more social workers.
The department also is trying to fill the gap by allowing people without social work degrees to be hired as "family support workers." Although some of those workers may have other skills and experience that qualify them for the work they are doing, a current advertisement on the KVC website lists a high school degree or GED and "experience working with children" as the only job requirements. "Previous experience in children and family services and a bachelor's degree in human services preferred," it adds.
If the family support workers can stick with a case for a longer period of time, Kansas children and families may actually benefit, but that doesn't eliminate the need for DCF to address the problem of high turnover among professional social workers. Is the pay too low? Is the caseload too large? Are work conditions a problem? Are social workers not getting the support they need from the contract agencies?
According to state figures, Kansas has about 6,500 children in its foster care system at any one time, and, since 2011, more children have been coming into the system each month than have been exiting. One can't help but wonder if children are lingering in the system longer because of the high turnover in case managers — a situation that would be detrimental both to the children and to state taxpayers.
These children are in the state system because they need some help, and the system currently seems to be letting at least some of those children down. DCF officials should give top priority to resolving the turnover problem and providing more consistent help to the Kansas children who need it.
The Hutchinson News, Nov. 2
State needs to roll back water rights for users out of compliance:
The Kansas Department of Agriculture is considering increasing fines for people ignoring the state's mandate to report annually the volume of water they pump from wells or for exceeding limits on water use.
That's a no-brainer. An even better stick would be to revoke their water rights altogether.
Susan Metzger, assistant secretary of agriculture, last month told a state legislative committee that the current $250 fine was an insufficient deterrent for people neglecting to submit an annual water use report on well-pumping to the state's Division of Water Resources — or for people who simply don't do it because it would show they are overpumping. The modest fine is just a cost of doing business for some, she said.
The issue is the ongoing decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground reservoir used heavily for crop irrigation, imperiling that part of the state to have water to support its human and livestock population long-term. Irrigation accounts for 85 percent of water consumed statewide.
The ag department hasn't yet determined, at least for public review, how much fines might be adjusted or when changes would be implemented, Metzger said.
Reporting compliance has improved to 95 percent from 60 percent since it was made a requirement by law. That's good, and it means we aren't talking about a high number of abusers.
Missing the deadline by more than a month triggers the $250 fine. If a water user exceeds his water right, the first infraction results only in a written notice. A second strike could result in a $1,000 fine and reduction in pumping of twice the amount of the overage. The third time, the fine goes to $1,000 a day and a one-year suspension of drawing water. With a fourth infraction comes a 10-year water suspension.
Those latter penalties should get the attention of abusers. It's the first and second offenses that have relatively mild penalties. The state simply needs to accelerate the penalties, especially water use prohibitions, to get the attention of over-users.
The core problem with the depletion of the Ogallalah is the state over-appropriated water rights for irrigation. This is less about being water cops and more about fixing that problem. It's why the state should repeal water rights. Starting with those who are taking more than their right makes sense.
Meanwhile, Gov. Sam Brownback is leading the development of a comprehensive 50-year water plan to manage the Ogallala better and also surface water reservoirs across the state.
Either by that plan or legislatively, the state needs to get serious about rolling back water usage for irrigation in western Kansas. The focus should be on retiring water rights, not fines.