The Hutchinson News, Nov. 29
Debate on allowing foreign corporate ag ownership needs Kansans' attention
A legislative advisory committee recently recommended the Legislature rewrite Kansas laws that restrict foreign corporate ownership of farms, saying that current laws are discriminatory against non-Kansas residents. Because if there's one thing Kansas lawmakers and administration officials have proven in recent years, it's that they're keenly concerned about being fair and equitable to all people, or at least to all corporations.
During the 2013 legislative session, supporters of a change to Kansas' 80-plus-year-old law against foreign corporate farm ownership met resistance from a wide variety of people across the state - and with good reason. The law would allow foreign ownership of Kansas farms and in the process strip county lawmakers and residents from restricting, regulating or prohibiting corporate agriculture operations within their home areas.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture, currently headed up by a former Cargill executive, and the Kansas Farm Bureau have been the biggest supporters of the change. Part of the push is based on concerns about the state's legal ability to restrict corporate activities within its borders - despite no legal challenge to Kansas' law. But in what is becoming a tired refrain of justification for efforts to alter longstanding Kansas laws and traditions, it's also about jobs and the economy.
"We have a governor and secretary of agriculture doing everything they can do grow the Kansas economy," Baccus told The News earlier this year. "It's difficult when you have the kind of laws we have. This isn't a business-friendly state."
Additionally, both the KDA and the KFB have said that companies have expressed interest in Kansas, but have been discouraged by the state's current laws. The details, however - the names of those companies, how many jobs they'd bring, what sort of operations they hope to set up and where - are never offered along with those blanket statements about all this growth potential knocking at Kansas' door. Nor do we hear specifics about what companies looked at Kansas but decided to move on down the road.
The truth is that Kansas is a business-friendly state - something the Kansas Department of Commerce proudly proclaims on its website by highlighting business publications that have identified Kansas as a "premier" state for businesses.
It's also true that doing away with Kansas longstanding laws against corporate agriculture ownership would require local elected officials to cede to the state their guaranteed home rule authority.
That means the case against Kansas' laws on corporate farming are not as clear-cut as supporters would have us believe, and we do not know the full extent of what changing the law might mean to the family farmer in Kansas.
While the KFB and the KDA undoubtedly will push again this session the idea that the history of the state's agriculture laws don't matter and that it's time for Kansas to welcome international corporate agribusiness, people who live and work in Kansas should watch this issue closely - and take steps now to protect their futures, just like those forward thinking Kansans did more than 80 years ago.
The Garden City Telegram, Nov. 28
Thanksgiving delivers a festival of food, as well as a time to celebrate the fruits of local labor.
In an agriculture-driven state that has long helped feed the nation and world, today's Thanksgiving holiday is a fine time to salute the important work of Kansas producers.
The southwest Kansas economy and its future remain tied to an impressive mix of agricultural pursuits, with area producers responsible for an abundance of successful crop and livestock operations.
They've been busy in recent days on various fronts with corn, soybean and sorghum harvests, along with tending to winter wheat, livestock and other responsibilities.
Even in the midst of those chores, most no doubt welcomed snow that fell over the weekend and brought precipitation always needed in a dry region.
One thing all folks involved in the hard work of ag production share is ever present uncertainty, with lofty challenges ranging from weather-related concerns to price volatility.
They can add the uncertain future of a farm bill to the list, as federal lawmakers continue to wrangle over particulars ranging from nutrition to trade, crop insurance to research, and much more.
Much of the disagreement over a new farm bill centers on food stamps — a program added decades ago to generate urban support for the legislation — and farm subsidies.
Unfortunately, producers are left to pay the price for an expired farm bill and subsequent inaction, to include the painful prospect of crop prices being pushed in the wrong direction, threats to crop insurance and disaster aid, and more fallout.
Federal lawmakers who have selfishly turned the farm bill into a political hot potato — including those who shortsightedly label it as government intervention run amok — need to compromise on details of legislation with far-reaching consequences for rural communities.
While it's a complex issue, there has to be a way to address the needs of ag producers while protecting the interests of taxpayers.
The final product will not be perfect. But failing to act, and allowing politics to block progress on a farm bill only adds more unwelcome, unneeded uncertainty in ag-driven Kansas and beyond.
The Wichita Eagle, Nov. 28
KCC should regulate itself
The state's utility regulators need to regulate themselves. They need to stop violating open-meetings laws and bad-mouthing a consumer watchdog agency.
The Kansas Corporation Commission was slapped this month with a $500 fine for violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act - the maximum fine allowed by law. The violation involved a process dubbed "pink-sheeting," in which a staff attorney circulates a proposed order individually to each of the commissioners and obtains a signature from each indicating approval. The signatures take the place of a vote in an open meeting.
This process was used earlier this year to more than double the water rate for a small community near Salina without holding an open meeting. The court order invalidated that rate decision and prohibited KCC from using the process.
This isn't the only problem the KCC has had with open meetings. Last summer KCC staff shut down a videoconference feed of an open meeting to its Wichita office after an Eagle reporter tried to watch it.
The KCC has also had serious management problems. Last summer it forced out its executive director after the Topeka Capital-Journal obtained an audit reporting widespread complaints by staff about her management practices and behavior.
Last month, two days before a court-imposed deadline expired, the KCC approved new guidelines for how it will conduct business in compliance with open-meetings laws. This month's court order didn't cover whether the new guidelines comply with open-meeting requirements. But the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, a small state agency that represents residential and small-business utility customers, objects that the guidelines allow for "deliberative meetings" behind closed doors.
CURB was already in the doghouse with KCC Chairman Mark Sievers. He recently said the KCC should investigate whether CURB's expenses are reasonable - raising concerns that the KCC was trying to control CURB. He also included a statement in a recent case docket criticizing CURB for being adversarial and filing "unproductive litigation."
Such criticism didn't sit well with David Springe, CURB's consumer counsel, the Capital-Journal reported.
"We call that 'unproductive litigation' trying to protect our clients' rights in front of this tribunal," Springe said. "There's a little thing called 'due process.'"
Rather than criticizing CURB for being too adversarial, the KCC should be more like CURB. Instead of wanting to make rate cases easier on the utilities and on itself - such as Sievers' suggestion last week that the KCC stop requiring cost studies if a rate-increase request is less than 10 percent - the KCC needs to conduct its business in open meetings and make protecting consumers a priority.
In other words, the KCC needs to be more like a watchdog and less like a lapdog.
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nov. 29
Gov. Sam Brownback says he hopes a recent meeting among select legislators and educators "laid the groundwork" for future discussion about ending the cycle of school finance litigation.
Most Kansans probably would agree, although they may hope the groundwork was laid for discussion and "progress" toward ending the cycle of school finance lawsuits.
The litigation has created tension, if not an outright rift, between lawmakers and many educators that does nothing to solve the overriding question of how much money the state's K-12 public school system needs to properly educate its students.
In 2003, Schools for Fair Funding filed a lawsuit contending the state's school finance formula was inequitable and that the Legislature wasn't living up to its constitutional responsibility of making "suitable provision for the finance" of education. The Kansas Supreme Court in 2005 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and the Legislature in 2006 passed a law designed to allocate additional funding, nearly $800 million, to education.
The recession interrupted the funding flow, however, and the current lawsuit, seeking another $400 million annually for K-12 education, was filed in 2010. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on the case early next year.
Regardless of how wide the rift is between some legislators and some educators, or how wide the gap is between what each side in this dispute considers adequate funding for schools, opening the lines of discussion, and ensuring the line stays open, just makes sense. The governor made a good move by initiating a process that could lead to a better understanding among lawmakers and educators.
The first meeting, conducted Monday at the Capitol, reportedly touched on broad ideas rather than specifics, but subsequent meetings will be conducted to identify areas legislators and educators could work on together.
One topic that did receive attention Monday was how increased funding for teacher pensions fit into the school finance formula. Brownback contends increases in the dollars devoted to teacher pensions through the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System under his watch must be considered as increased funding for K-12 education. Plaintiffs in the current lawsuit disagree.
No one knows exactly what the Kansas Supreme Court justices will say in their ruling, but the state should get credit for the cost of teacher pensions. Employers, public and private, must factor labor costs, all of them, into their budgets. Those costs include salaries and benefits. To disregard the cost of pensions, a significant expenditure, when computing the state's contribution to education makes no sense.