The Wichita Eagle, April 22
Court authority, funds at risk:
Kansans should be aware of a constitutional crisis in the making in Topeka — one that's linked to but also distinct from the unresolved school-finance lawsuit. It's about court funding, and it risks both the balance of powers and the ability of the state's judiciary to function.
The state constitution gives the Kansas Supreme Court "general administrative authority over all courts in this state." But a 2014 law cemented judicial funding to policy reforms, taking away the high court's power to control budgets and pick chief administrative district judges. Leaving no doubt about legislative intent of the punitive law, a non-severability clause guaranteed that if a court struck down the policy changes as unconstitutional, the judicial funding would fall, too.
Legislators readied a second strike in the wake of the February filing of a lawsuit by Chief Judge Larry T. Solomon of the 30th Judicial District (Kingman, Barber, Harper, Sumner and Pratt counties) challenging last year's law. House Bill 2005 has another non-severability clause, this time specifying the bill's judicial funding for the next two fiscal years will vanish if any provision of either the new bill or the 2014 law "is stayed or is held to be invalid or unconstitutional." Again, the message is clear: The judiciary will get its money unless it judges the laws unconstitutional.
The latest bill was approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee but awaits action in the wrap-up session that begins April 29.
If lawmakers have any respect for the state constitution, they will think better of such legislative overreach, and ensure that the judiciary has the funding and independence it needs to serve Kansans.
The Topeka Capital-Journal, April 26
KDOT bank running dry:
A report by the Kansas Department of Transportation on its projected cash flow for the next several years indicates raids on that agency's money are near an end and it's time for the governor and legislators to find a sustainable way to fund the state budget.
Transfers from the KDOT treasury to fund other needs have been common practice for a long time, well before Gov. Sam Brownback took office. But he and legislators over the past five years have escalated the drain on highway funds — which apparently will continue for the next two budget years — to the point the agency expects its ending balance in fiscal year 2017 to be $6.9 million. The required minimum balance in the fund that year should be about $56 million.
It should be noted the projection for the ending balance in 2017 was made before the state revised its revenue projections downward. The revision was due, in part, to declines in sales tax revenue, which fuels Kansas' latest 10-year infrastructure program, known as T-Works.
In the past, KDOT officials have said that all planned T-Works projects could be completed despite the withdrawals for other needs. Highway expansion projects scheduled under T-Works are moving forward, but the state is behind on maintenance and this year delayed $300 million in road preservation projects.
Money can be borrowed to finish T-Works projects or maintenance, but it comes at a price. That debt must eventually be paid by Kansas' taxpayers, who were told a sales tax hike to fund the T-Works program would cover the bills.
It would cover all the bills and, at the rate the money was flowing into KDOT's coffers during the tax hike's early years, would have provided a lot of funding for future projects.
That certainly doesn't appear to be the case now, and responsibility for that lies with the governor and legislators who refuse to acknowledge the state has obligations it must fund on a sustainable basis.
Taking money from the left pocket and putting it in the right pocket might give the illusion the state's revenues and expenditures are in balance, but the illusion fades when the left pocket is empty.
Legislators return to Topeka this week and must present a balanced budget to the governor before the 2015 session can be gaveled to a close.
It is time for legislators to acknowledge the state's glaring financial woes and stop settling for patch work that lasts only for a year, if that.
The Hutchinson News, April 23
Medicinal marijuana a weak reason to splinter families:
If you're a proponent of medicinal use or legalization of marijuana, you're likely upset about the case of Shona Banda, Garden City, whose 11-year-old son was placed in state care after police found the drug in her home.
But you likewise should be concerned if you're one of the many Kansans who is concerned about the size and scope of government, the efficient use of taxpayer money or the erosion of constitutional freedoms.
Banda, a medicinal marijuana proponent, could face criminal charges and has temporarily lost custody of her son after he reportedly spoke about medicinal marijuana during an anti-drug program at school last month. Officials at the school, mandated by law to report potential cases of abuse or neglect, called the Department of Children and Families, which in turn called law enforcement to have the child removed from the home.
Officers searched the home and found more than a pound of marijuana and equipment to create cannabis oil. Her son remains in temporary state custody. Banda said the oil has helped her better manage a debilitating chronic illness.
Yet, at least to the public, there seems to be little evidence that Banda's son is a victim of abuse or neglect. The central issue is that Banda is a proponent of medicinal marijuana, is outspoken and unashamed of her belief in the plant's ability to treat chronic illness.
It doesn't seem on the surface that her child lacks food, clothes or love, and nothing has emerged to show that he's being physically or emotionally abused.
The state has no solution for the care of a child that is better than a loving parent, regardless of whether that parent's behavior or beliefs are counter to the majority's opinion or even the laws of the state. The only reasonable threshold for separating children from their parents is when the safety and well-being of that child is in jeopardy.
The argument could be made that because marijuana is illegal, Banda's use of it places her son in danger. Yet that argument falls flat on consideration of pervasive alcohol abuse, which, while legal, presents the potential for far more danger. In such a case, the child would be removed only if there was a clear danger, not because of the mere presence of excessive alcohol.
What is far more damaging than Banda's drug use is removing a child from a parent who loves and cares for him, to place him in a system that only provides the basic needs of life. Doing so inflicts pain and stress on a family and forces the state to spend money caring for a child who, by most appearances, didn't want for adequate care from his mother.
This case screams for a recognition that our institutional approach to drugs, that each is as bad as the worst, while turning a blind eye to the damaging effects of alcohol abuse, is completely outdated and ineffective. Maintaining the failed drug policies from a generation ago has not worked, and Banda's case shows that those policies introduce the state where it doesn't belong and create far more damage than they solve.
The Lawrence Journal-World, April 22
New regulations may have brought earthquake relief to 2 Kansas counties:
The scientific jury is still out on whether increased earthquake activity is linked to the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas production in south-central Kansas, but many residents of Harper and Sumner counties have made up their minds.
What they know is that since last month, when the Kansas Corporation Commission set new limits on the amount of wastewater the drillers could inject into the ground beneath their counties, there have been fewer earthquakes. They still occur, but not as often. It could be just a natural ebb and flow of activity in a fault zone or it could be an early indication of what residents in those counties and other areas suspected: wastewater disposal triggered by an increase in oil and gas drilling in their area was causing small earthquakes that were damaging their property and disrupting their lives.
Between 1977 and 2012, Harper and Sumner counties had two earthquakes that registered a least 2.0 on the Richter scale. Between January 2013 and March, the area recorded 159 quakes in that category. It's hard to believe that the earthquakes had nothing to do with the corresponding increase in oil and gas drilling and wastewater disposal during that same time period.
The earthquakes sometimes occurred several times a day. Most were small, but some caused damage. According to a Kansas City news report, the bill for fixing the courthouse steps in Anthony tripled to more than $1 million in part due to earthquake damage.
The KCC's action is getting attention from residents in other states. Activists across the border in Oklahoma reportedly are seeking similar limits on wastewater disposal. As noted at the outset, it's too early for scientists to make any definitive statements on the cause of the earthquakes but they continue to study the situation including the possibility that the small earthquakes that are occurring could eventually lead to larger quake.
The eight drilling companies affected by the KCC order still can request a hearing on the restrictions and the companies argue that the debate is far from over. Nonetheless it's good the KCC decided to get involved and try to provide some relief to the residents of Harper and Sumner counties.