The Hutchinson News, Aug. 5
Feds step in on state's absurd $25 daily assistance limit
It turns out that when a state is holding out its hand for federal money, it has to follow the giver's rules about how that money is used -- even a state such as Kansas, which never seems to miss an opportunity to penalize people for their financial poverty.
The Kansas Legislature, crazed with unchecked power during the last session, moved to alter and limit poor Kansans' access to social service and welfare programs. Among the most absurd was a measure that would restrict daily ATM withdrawals for cash assistance from the federal Temporary Aid for Needy Families fund to $25 a day. Some lawmakers were happy with themselves and didn't mind that ATMs only dole out cash in $10 increments, effectively limiting such withdrawals to $20 a day.
An email from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, however, threatened to pull $100 million in federal money from Kansas, which apparently found the soft spot in Kansas government's heart.
Some of the changes in the reform package weren't all bad, such as some of the restrictions on where and for what the money could be spent. When lawmakers crossed into the realm of micromanaging the lives of the impoverished, they undid much of the good they originally may have sought to accomplish.
By and large, the people writing and passing laws in Topeka have not ever struggled personally with poverty. They've not ever lived in a world in which they had to choose between food and electricity, or transportation and rent. Lawmakers, generally speaking, come from middle class families and increasingly from more urban areas with better access to community services. They lack the first-hand knowledge, understanding and compassion to enact such restrictive measures on federal cash assistance.
Yet there is a difference between trying to establish sensible policy and trying to punish people who already don't have enough, without considering the practical applications of a punitive policy.
Fortunately, it was the big, bad federal government that recognized the maliciousness in Kansas policy and reminded the state that when it comes to federal cash assistance, it has to deploy a little common sense and, perhaps, some decency.
Lawrence Journal-World, Aug. 10
State regulators play a key role in protecting the interests of electricity consumers in Kansas.
Customers of Wester Energy Inc., the state's largest electric company, probably are pleased but maybe a little puzzled by the rate compromise announced last week by Westar, the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Citizens' Utility Ratepayers Board.
The electric company initially had sought to increase its rates enough to bring in an additional $152 million a year but now has decided it can settle for an overall increase about half that big: $78 million. That's more than the $56 million increase favored initially by CURB and the KCC, but represented what CURB's chief attorney called "a pretty decent deal" for Kansas customers.
The difference between what Westar started out asking for and what it eventually found acceptable may raise some eyebrows. The company said it needed $152 million to cover its costs for work that already has been completed at the LaCygne and Wolf Creek power plants and to provide $220 million over the next five years for upgrades to its electrical grid. However, at the end of the negotiations, Westar said the $78 million still would allow it to recover the power plant costs and to invest about $50 million in the grid.
So, how much was Westar padding its request? Over five years, the $152 million increase would have amounted to $760 million in additional funds, compared to the $390 million provided by the $78 million increase. That's a difference of $370 million, and yet the company said it would only have to reduce the amount going to grid improvements by about $170 million. Where was the other $200 million going? A lot of that $40 million per year probably would have gone into shareholders pockets. Westar reported total earnings of $313 million ($2.40 per share) last year, up from $293 million ($2.29 per share) in 2013.
The rate compromise still must receive final approval from the KCC, but the tentative agreement points out the important role that the KCC and CURB play in protecting the interests of utility consumers in the state. To stay in business, companies like Westar need to be allowed to recover their costs and provide a reasonable return to their investors. It's in the company's interest to maximize its profits, but it's the responsibility of the KCC to make sure the company isn't reaping unreasonable profits through unreasonably high electrical rates.
Most Kansans probably don't know much about the KCC and CURB, but the Westar "compromise" announced last week perhaps should trigger a greater appreciation for the role those agencies play.
Salina Journal, Aug. 9
Keep 'em coming back
If you were fortunate enough to be at the Salina Noon Rotary Club's meeting last week at the Salina Bicentennial Center, you were witness to one of the club's annual events: Welcoming new teachers to the Salina School District.
This fall, the district added 53 new teachers.
It's heartening each year to see all those new and enthusiastic faces and realize they will be responsible for helping our children learn and develop, which means they'll play a role of incalculable value in determining how our town and state will prosper.
Several things stood out this year. A noticeable number of those in attendance were native Salinans, some of whom were just a few years removed from city schools.
The second was the number who had taught in Salina, left, and then returned. One said she did so because Salina is a wonderful place to work.
This encouraging news comes at a time when, according to various news reports, an increasing number of Kansas teachers are retiring or leaving the state, with many heading to Missouri to take teaching jobs. Why?
There are a number of reasons, but chief among them is the toxic atmosphere that Gov. Brownback and the Legislature have created by stripping teachers of collective bargaining power, removing the protection of tenure and constantly trying to educate children on the cheap.
It doesn't take too many of these types of actions to let teachers know that some of our state leaders regard them as money-grubbing union members. Going after unions might sound like a good idea, but like any other action, it has its negative consequences.
So, what does Salina offer to keep and attract teachers? Well, there's a history of public support and commitment to building good schools, as evidenced by a $99 million bond issue in 1998 and a $110 million bond issue in 2014. It also helps that many of those returning to Salina are coming home to family.
But more than anything else, the district and Salina offer a good place to work, live and raise families. It's something that can attract good teachers, or bring them back. And good teachers are essential for a town to prosper.
That's something to never take for granted.
Wichita Eagle, Aug. 4.
The state is providing insufficient care and support for Kansans with mental illnesses.
A special task force is correct that the state is providing insufficient care and support for Kansans with mental illnesses. But its call for increased resources - including expanding Medicaid - is not what Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature want to hear.
The Adult Continuum of Care Committee wrote in a recent report that the state's continuum of behavioral care services was "insufficient to serve the needs of the population." It also concluded that an inadequate safety net for people with severe, complex mental illnesses "jeopardizes the well-being of those individuals, puts communities at risk and places an undue burden on local resources, including law enforcement."
The behavioral health system in Kansas has long been strained. But the problem became more acute this year after the state was forced to cap admissions to the Osawatomie hospital because of overcrowding. It then had to limit admissions even more and eventually institute a moratorium after it closed part of the hospital to complete federally mandated renovations.
The task force report emphasized that the state needs to complete the renovations as soon as possible so that hospital admissions can increase. It called for more regional and local services that can help reduce the strain on the state hospitals, including residential care facilities and crisis stabilization and diversion programs. It also recommended increasing the reimbursement rate for beds to support smaller community hospitals in expanding psychiatric units.
But coming up with additional resources will be difficult, because of state budget problems and ideological objections.
The biggest opportunity to expand and improve the mental health system is to allow a federal expansion of Medicaid. According to the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, 53 percent of the people treated at community mental health centers in Kansas are uninsured, and 70 percent of them have incomes of less than $20,000. Expanding Medicaid would qualify thousands of Kansans to receive federally funded mental health services, helping them live healthier and more productive lives.
An official with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services discouraged the task force from recommending Medicaid expansion, which Brownback and a majority of state lawmakers oppose. But the report recommended it anyway, saying the state should explore one or more expansion models.
The state also recently passed up another opportunity for expanded federal funding. KDADS decided not to apply for a federal Excellence in Mental Health grant that could have generated millions of dollars for behavioral health programs throughout the state, the Kansas Health Institute News Service reported.
A KDADS spokeswoman said the grant was too limited in its approach. But Kyle Kessler, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, said the grant could have "increased access to services and covered the costs of those services."
The Brownback administration has put a lot of effort in trying to reform and reorganize the behavioral health system so that it can "provide the right care at the right time in the right place." But the system also needs more resources.