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The Wichita Eagle, Jan. 21

KPERS cuts are costly:

Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to reduce payments to the state's pension system undercuts the reforms he helped champion and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Surely there is a better way to pay for his tax cuts.

In 2012, after decades of underfunding the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, the Legislature passed reforms to increase state and employee contributions to KPERS and to create a hybrid "cash-balance plan" for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2015. Brownback bragged about these reforms when he was running for re-election, and he continues to boast about them.

"We have enacted reform and succeeded in devoting considerably more resources to what was a badly underfunded system," Brownback said in his State of the State address last week.

But the funding cuts Brownback ordered for this fiscal year and those he proposes for the future undermine this progress.

In order to help close this year's budget shortfall, Brownback is withholding $58 million in state payments to KPERS. The loss of that money and its investment earnings will cost the state $76.7 million over 20 years, said Alan Conroy, executive director of KPERS.

Much more significantly, Brownback wants to extend the date for the state eliminating KPERS' unfunded liability from 2033 to 2043. Doing so would enable the state to lower its annual contributions but would cost an additional $9.1 billion (non-inflation adjusted) nearly doubling the current unfunded liability.

To help cover these costs, Brownback proposed borrowing $1.5 billion. These bond proceeds and their investment income would result in a net cost to KPERS of Brownback's proposals of about $3.7 billion.

However, the state general fund would be responsible for the debt service on the bonds, which likely would cost more than $90 million per year for 30 years or more than $2.7 billion. There is also the risk that another stock-market downturn could cause the state to pay more in interest on the bonds than what KPERS earns in investment income.

Kansas teachers and state employees feel betrayed by Brownback's proposal. They supported the 2012 reform, which increased their employee contributions to KPERS, because they saw it as a shared sacrifice to shore up the pension system. But now the state is already trying to wiggle out of its funding commitment.

Several state lawmakers, including Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, also have been critical of Brownback's backtracking on the 2012 reforms.

Brownback said in his State of the State address that "all of those truly interested in fiscal prudence should support putting our state retirement system on a sound long-term footing."

The 2012 reforms put the state on that path. Brownback's cuts send the state on a costly detour.


Lawrence Journal-World, Jan. 23

An honored guest:

Any day a sitting U.S. president comes to town is an exciting day.

Lawrence had the honor of hosting President Barack Obama on Thursday. Aside from a few traffic jams caused by police efforts to clear a secure path for the presidential motorcade, his visit seemed to come off without a hitch.

The president's message, delivered at Kansas University's Anschutz Pavilion, emphasized many of the same themes as Tuesday's State of the Union address: the general upturn in the nation's economy, as illustrated by growth in such areas as jobs and energy production, and his plans to help bolster America's middle class by helping to "build a sense of security in a changing economy." That means making college more accessible and health care more available along with providing the kind of wages middle-class Americans need to buy homes and plan for retirement. He also touched on his proposal to increase the minimum wage and drew enthusiastic applause when he mentioned his efforts to ensure women equal pay for equal work.

Obama made affordable, high-quality child care a key focus of his visit. His first stop of the morning was at the Community Children's Center, a Head Start program housed at Plymouth Congregational Church. During his speech at KU, he drew on his Kansas roots, mentioning his grandmother who worked in a Wichita aircraft plant during World War II. Because women were desperately needed in the work force then, child care programs were part of the deal. Obama noted that the nation "knew how to do it in 1943 or 44" and should be able to do it today. "What's the holdup?" he asked.

In between meeting preschoolers and the waiting crowd at Anschutz, Obama had a private session with the Jayhawk basketball team. He noted the team's position atop the Big 12 conference and he went away with a personalized Obama jersey and a signed basketball.

Obama is a gifted speaker, and he was in fine form in Lawrence. He quipped about his inability to carry Kansas in either presidential election but acknowledged he "might have won a few sections of Lawrence." (Actually, he carried Douglas County in both 2008 and 2012.)

Regardless of their political bent, Lawrence residents should be honored by Obama's visit. Congratulations to all the organizers and advance workers who helped pull off this historic moment for Lawrence and what we hope was an enjoyable visit for the president.


The Hutchinson News, Jan. 23

Free college:

Imagine the United States being a country with two more years of public education in the form of free community college, making that extra two years as universal as high school.

It is a great-sounding idea for a lame-duck president making a State of the Union speech, all the while surely knowing it has absolutely zero chance of going anywhere in a hostile Congress. It is great to dream about such a progressive educational idea, but it isn't practical, is premature, and its aims can be accomplished in other ways.

President Obama proposed free community college for every American in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, then went on the road to promote that and other initiatives targeted at working families including at an appearance at the University of Kansas on Thursday.

Universally free community college is not practical because it would cost $60 billion over 10 years, and that's only the 75 percent federal share of the program, with states proposed to pick up the rest. It's going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress.

It's premature, because before we as a nation extend public education by two years on the tail end, we first should advance it a year on the front end. Studies have shown that the early childhood years — prekindergarten — are the most formative and that we are missing an opportunity by not ensuring that kids start school sooner. Why not, then, have free preschool for all American children?

That also would be another way to help dual wager-earner families with child care, which is another issue Obama is championing.

And Obama's community college idea ignores successful initiatives at the state level. One of those is in Kansas, where high school students can take vocational education classes at community and technical colleges at no cost. That's not quite the same as Obama's idea, but it allows high school students to pursue a trade or vocation at little or no cost.

It's an excellent program, at least for those students who are better suited or would prefer to go that route versus a traditional, four-year college education.

Two years of community college would help the bachelor's degree-bound student, but it would hold back students ready to start as a freshman at a four-year college or university. The bigger issue is the high cost of higher education. And to make that more affordable for everyone, the government could pump more money into grants and scholarships.

What we shouldn't be doing is eliminating successful programs to pay for new ones. The White House's free community college plan would eliminate the tax deduction for "529" college savings accounts. That would be a mistake. In a perfect country, maybe a college education would be universally free, but given the impracticality of that in the U.S., families should be encouraged to save for their children's higher education.


Salina Journal, Jan. 21

Obama, Sam and taxes:

Two politicians, both want more revenue.

One decides to increase taxes on the top 1 percent. He wants to use the money to try to advance the middle class and help some pay for college, among other things.

The other decides to increase taxes on cigarettes a whopping $1.50 a pack and on liquor from 8 to 12 percent. This comes on top of a sales tax increase of three-quarters of a cent. All of these taxes disproportionately affect the poor because they take a larger share of their income.

On Tuesday, our first politician, President Barack Obama, addressed the nation in the State of the Union speech and said what he'd do with that increase in revenue.

This past week, the other politician, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, unveiled his budget proposal and why he needs to increase taxes.

It's more likely that Brownback will be able to get what he wants since his Republican Party owns both the Kansas House and Senate. He'd better. Unlike Obama, Brownback isn't presenting a wish list as much as a have-to-have-it list.

Because of the income tax cuts that he and his party pushed through the Legislature, the state faces a $648 million budget hole for fiscal year 2016, which starts July 1.

In Obama's defense, obviously the top 1 percent aren't going to go hungry because of a tax increase. But we also don't give any weight to the constant clamor to soak the rich, a move that arises out of jealously and doesn't accord the wealthy any respect for how they obtained that wealth — most often from hard work and sacrifice.

And in defense of Brownback, no one is being forced to drink or smoke.

It's also instructive to look beyond the political motives. Obama is acting out of a sense of trying to do the best he can for the poor and middle class. Brownback is desperate for money to fix a problem that he foolishly created.

Two politicians. One wants to tax the rich, the other wants taxes that disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class. It doesn't explain everything, but it does provide another way to judge these men.

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