The Wichita Eagle, Dec. 1

Kansas deserves a vote on Brownback’s ambassador nomination

In July, President Donald Trump nominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to be our country’s next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

More than four months later, the U.S. Senate has yet to hold a confirmation vote.

It’s simply unacceptable that the political wranglings of Washington, D.C., have left the government and the people of Kansas in limbo this long. It’s time for the Senate to hold a vote to settle the matter.

Kansas has serious business to attend to, and it’s not getting the attention it needs as long as Brownback, a Republican, has one foot out of the governor’s office and his replacement, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, has one foot in the governor’s office.

Brownback has largely turned the reins of Kansas government over to Colyer, who is preparing a budget, a job normally done by the governor. Colyer has also appointed a new head of the Department of Children and Families, a decision normally made by the governor.

But the fact is, Brownback is still the governor, which limits what Colyer can do. It also causes political disruption, as some say Brownback should make the decisions assigned to his office as long as he legally holds the title.

Kansas faces many critical issues that need the full attention of our governor. They include a school funding shortage identified by the State Supreme Court, problems with KanCare, dysfunction within the Department of Children and Families, unrest in our prison system and more.

Brownback was in Washington this week in an effort to move the nomination process forward. He and Sen. Pat Roberts met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Brownback didn’t provide details about his meetings.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Brownback’s nomination in October by a vote of 11-10 that fell along party lines. Brownback faced questions from Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, about an executive order he signed in 2015 that rescinded protection for state workers from being discriminated against or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Brownback said he believed such an order, put in place by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, should have come from the legislature. In a written response to questions from Democrats Brownback said, “Violence or persecution in the name of religion against members of the LGBT community is wrong, as is persecution or violence based on gender, race, faith, age, national origin or disability.”

A Democratic aide told The Kansas City Star in October that Democrats would force delays in the nomination process. But this week Democrats said they had not put any holds on a vote.

Brownback needs 51 votes to be confirmed. Republicans hold 52 of the Senate’s seats, which bodes well for a favorable vote for Brownback.

We don’t know what is going on behind the scenes in Washington. But we do know this: It is hurting the people of Kansas.

A vote on Brownback’s nomination should be scheduled now. Kansas deserves nothing less.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 3

KPERS still has $9 billion in liabilities, and lawmakers need to bring this number down

Although Kansas is in a much stronger fiscal position than it was at this time last year, there are still major challenges that lawmakers and the governor will have to address in 2018. From the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Legislature’s most recent school finance formula remains unconstitutional to the structural gap between recurring revenue and expenses that still exists in the state budget, lawmakers will have plenty of work to do next year. And one of their most important responsibilities will be the responsible stewardship of the state’s pension system.

Two days after Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts were finally repealed, Moody’s revised the state’s financial outlook from negative to stable: “The tax increase enacted this week was a major step forward in the state’s willingness to utilize its resources to balance its budget and service its long-term liabilities.” However, Moody’s also cautioned that Kansas “is likely to be a below-average performer for the next few years,” citing its “pension funding challenges” as one of the main reasons.

It isn’t difficult to see why. Kansas has $9 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, which means the system is only 67 percent funded. While this has improved from 52 percent in 2012, the Legislature still has to spend $623.5 million on KPERS in the next fiscal year just to maintain the current level of debt.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, says she doesn’t think the Legislature will be able to cover that cost. It’s possible that the state will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on school finance next session, and we’re still in the process of clearing the debris from the Brownback tax cuts. Our reserves have been completely depleted, lawmakers continue to pay the bills with short-term cash from KDOT and other nonrecurring sources of revenue, and stressed state agencies like the Department for Children and Families are coping with personnel problems, high turnover rates, etc.

Kansas also has an aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost a quarter of the state will be over the age of 60 by 2030. Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, chairs the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits, and he points out that lawmakers need to “make sure we pay our share and don’t make the next generation pay our share.” But the Legislature has repeatedly deferred this responsibility, including a $100 million delayed payment in 2016 (which was supposed to be paid back by June 2018 with 8 percent interest).

Not only will more Kansans soon be withdrawing pension funds, but the state also needs to be prepared for economic volatility. KPERS executive director Alan Conroy explains that difficult economic years are inevitable: “Eventually, they will come, so you want a strong base to be able to absorb those kinds of reductions.” This is why Kelly says she didn’t support the decision to issue a $1 billion pension bond in 2015, despite the fact that the return has been higher than the interest so far: “We just know historically that things can’t keep going up. They’re going to come back down.”

The state’s pension bond gamble has worked out so far, but there’s no telling how the market will perform in the future. Meanwhile, KPERS will be under more and more pressure over the next decade. Last year, Kelly was candid about the temptation to ignore KPERS payments: “It’s so easy to defer. We just don’t pay it.” This is a habit lawmakers need to break.

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The Kansas City Star, Dec. 3

Kansas can’t fully repay the wrongfully convicted. But the state should try

Lamonte McIntyre is still wearing his prison-issued, black-frame glasses.

He can’t afford the steep price he was quoted for a new pair and a new prescription. That’s the sad reality for a man who wasn’t employed for 23 years because he was incarcerated for a double murder he didn’t commit.

Richard Jones has been approached for handouts by people who assume he’s sitting on a wad of cash, given that he served 17 years for a robbery that he didn’t commit. You might recognize him as the doppelganger who was misidentified in a highly questionable police photo lineup, confused with a man who had a similar hairstyle and skin tone.

Floyd Bledsoe tried to get a car loan but was told he’d have to pay a 24 percent interest rate because he had no credit history. He also applied for a job recently and was told that his background check showed he was still in prison. He’s been out for almost two years, exonerated by DNA evidence for a murder his brother committed.

The state of Kansas granted these men their freedom because it was proven that each was wrongfully convicted. It’s past time for the state to do right by them. They shouldn’t have to sue for modest compensation for the years they can’t get back.

All three men entered prison as young men — McIntyre was just a teenager. Now, they are all 41 years old, desperately trying to restart their lives with grace and dignity.

But all three struggle, often relying the charity of strangers. For that generosity, they are grateful.

But they shouldn’t have to be.

The Kansas Legislature must right this wrong. Establishing a fair compensation scale for the wrongfully convicted should be high on the to-do list when state senators and representatives reconvene in January.

Kansas is one of 18 states that offer nothing to former inmates after they are exonerated. The state should follow the lead of Texas, which provides $80,000 per year spent incarcerated, plus the necessary help exonerees might need to become self-sufficient.

Every day that McIntyre, Jones and Bledsoe struggle underscores Kansas’ cruelty.

“This is something that we shouldn’t have to fight for,” Jones said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

If these men had completed their sentences, they would have received $100 in cash as they exited prison and would have been linked with programs that aid parolees in finding work and getting reestablished. For a time, Bledsoe worked for a reentry program that he didn’t qualify for because technically, he wasn’t a parolee.

The men can never recoup the Social Security benefits they would have been earning as free, employed men. Nor can they make up the personal savings they could have banked. Lost also is precious family time that could have been spent as fathers and husbands.

All of this was stolen by inept and possibly corrupt actions of people within the criminal justice system. Kansas can never fully repay this debt.

But it’s morally and ethically repugnant that the state refuses to even try. Legislators have faced this question before and have failed to pass legislation to allow for compensation.

Bledsoe testified for one proposal. One senator had the gall to suggest that perhaps people would try to be imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, just so they could scam money from the state.

“Nobody in their right minds wants to go to prison,” Bledsoe said recently, recounting the preposterous theory.

The three men share a resilience, an acceptance of what happened to them. They show none of the bitterness that could harm their chances for success going forward.

Waffling politicians could learn from them. But first, lawmakers must financially compensate the wrongfully convicted and establish a system to ensure that this miscarriage of justice for exonerees is never repeated.