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Headlines for Friday, June 14, 2019

 

UPDATED!  Kansas Supreme Court OKs School Funding Law but Keeps Lawsuit Open

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court signed off Friday on an increase in spending on public schools that the Democratic governor pushed through the Republican-controlled Legislature, but the justices refused to close the protracted education funding lawsuit that prompted their decision.  The new school finance law boosted funding roughly $90 million a year and was enacted in April with bipartisan support. The court ruled that the new money was enough to satisfy the Kansas Constitution but also said it was keeping the underlying lawsuit open to ensure that the state keeps its funding promises.  "The State has substantially complied with our mandate," the court said in its unsigned opinion, referencing a decision last year that the state wasn't spending enough.  Governor Laura Kelly had hoped the Supreme Court would end the lawsuit, which was filed by four local school districts in 2010. The districts' attorneys argued the new law would not provide enough new money after the 2019-20 school year and wanted the court to order additional increases.  Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year on its public schools — about $1 billion more than it did during the 2013-14 school year — because of the court's decisions. Some Republican lawmakers, particularly conservatives, have complained that the court has infringed on lawmakers' power under the state constitution to make spending decisions.

Two justices made comments during a hearing in May that suggested they were looking for a way to end the case. Justice Eric Rosen asked from the bench, "Where does this ever end?"  But Justice Dan Biles, a former State Board of Education attorney, told the state's solicitor general that the four districts sued after lawmakers "reneged" on funding promises and, "I don't have a lot of sympathy for the idea of dismissing this lawsuit."

Keeping the case open makes it easier for the districts to pursue complaints that the state has broken its promises. They would not have to file a new lawsuit and go through a lower-court trial before seeking relief from the state's highest court.

The school funding decisions made the court a political issue, helping to fuel the rise of unsuccessful campaigns by conservatives in 2014 and 2016 to remove six of the seven justices. Four of those justices were appointed by Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius and the other two, by moderate GOP Governor Bill Graves. The seventh justice was appointed by conservative Republican Governor Sam Brownback.

The Supreme Court ruled previously that under the Kansas Constitution, the state must spend enough money and distribute the dollars fairly enough to finance a suitable education for every child. In an order last year, the court said a 2018 law promising future spending increases wasn't sufficient because it did not properly account for inflation.

This year's law contained Kelly's proposal for an inflation adjustment, which was based on recommendations from the Republican-controlled state school board. She and other state officials hoped the broad, bipartisan support for the measure would win over the court.  The four school districts argued that the state botched what was a straightforward math problem. They contend the solution requires increasingly larger amounts of money each year through the 2022-23 school year. Under their calculations, the increase for that year would be about $360 million instead of the roughly $90 million under Kelly's proposal.

(earlier reporting)

Top Kansas Court Releasing Latest Ruling on Public School Funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court is preparing to rule again on whether the state is providing enough money to its public schools under a new education funding law.  The high court planned to issue its latest decision Friday in a lawsuit filed by four local school districts in 2010. The justices have ruled six times in less than six years that funding isn't sufficient under the Kansas Constitution.  A law enacted in April will increase the state's education funding by roughly $90 million a year. Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year on its public schools, or about $1 billion more than it did during the 2013-14 school year.  The school districts argue that the increase will not be enough after the 2019-20 school year.

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Districts' Lawyer Vows to Monitor School Funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — An attorney representing four local public school districts in Kansas is promising to continue monitoring the state's education funding in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling. The high court declared Friday that the state's funding is adequate following the passage of law this year that boosted it roughly $90 million a year. Four districts sued the state in 2010 and argued that the new law still wasn't adequate. Attorney Alan Rupe said he is disappointed in the result. But Rupe said it's a "huge victory" that the Supreme Court declined to end the lawsuit so that the justices can ensure that the state keeps its funding promises. Rupe said the districts will go back to the Supreme Court if they feel the state is not meeting its commitments.

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Kansas Supreme Court Strikes Down Cap in Injury Cases

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court has struck down the state's statutory cap on noneconomic damages in personal injury cases. The high court ruled Friday that capping damages that an injured person is allowed to receive in a lawsuit violates the right to trial by jury set out in the Kansas Constitution's Bill of Rights. Its decision comes in a case filed by Diana Hilburn, who was injured in a 2010 accident when a semi-truck rear-ended the car she was riding. A jury awarded Hilburn $33,490.86 for medical expenses and $301,509.14 for noneconomic losses. She appealed when the jury's noneconomic damages were capped at the $250,000 statutory limit. The court found the limitation intrudes upon the jury's determination of the compensation owed her to redress her injury.

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Kansas Governor Plans to End Economic Border War in KC Area

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly says she plans to issue an executive order to end a longstanding economic border war between her state and Missouri in the Kansas City area. Kelly told reporters Friday that her executive order will mirror a new Missouri law that prevents incentives from being used to lure businesses across the border in the metropolitan area. The Missouri law takes effect only if Kansas acts. It was the first time that Kelly publicly committed to issuing an executive order. In Missouri, such a policy requires a change in state law. Both states have spent millions of dollars luring businesses across the state line over the past decade. Area officials see such efforts as wasteful and want to focus on attracting businesses from outside the region.

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USDA Plan to Move Offices to Kansas City Sparks Concerns About Research

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to relocate the headquarters of two research agencies to the Kansas City area, intensifying concerns that research will suffer.  Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the move Thursday and said it will bring the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture closer to farmers and agribusinesses. He also said it would save about $20 million a year.  But the Union of Concerned Scientists predicted the move will drive off researchers and called it "a blatant attack on science."  A union representing Economic Research Service employees said the move is "coldhearted" and called for keeping workers in Washington.  Members of the Kansas and Missouri congressional delegations and the state's governors applauded the decision. It's expected to bring 550 jobs to the area.

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Feds Seek Forfeiture of $470K in Cash Seized in Kansas 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Federal prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of $470,000 in suspected drug money that was seized earlier this year during three Kansas traffic stops. The Wichita Eagle reports that one stop alone yielded $250,000 in cash. A Kansas Highway Patrol trooper found that money in vacuum-sealed plastic bags and a duffel bag after stopping a rented car in February on Interstate 70 in Ellsworth County. Three days earlier, $55,000 was found during a traffic stop along I-70 in Wabaunsee County. Another $165,000 was found in March wrapped in plastic and hidden inside the rear fender panel of a sport utility vehicle that was pulled over on Interstate 35 in Chase County For now, the money that the government wants to keep is in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

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Co-Founder of GPS Device-Maker Garmin Dies at Age of 81

OLATHE, Kan. (AP) — Gary Burrell, who co-founded GPS device-maker Garmin and helped grow the startup into a global operation, has died. He was 81. Garmin spokeswoman Krista Klaus says he died Wednesday at his home in southern Johnson County from "complications relating to longstanding health issues." He used his background working at marine and aviation electronics companies when he started Garmin in 1989 with fellow engineer Min Kao. The Olathe, Kansas-based company now has more than 13,000 employees in 60 offices around the world. It recorded earnings of $3.3 billion last year. Burrell retired in 2002 and continued to serve as Garmin's co-chairman until 2004 when he was named chairman emeritus. Kao said in a news release that it was a "great privilege and a blessing to have known this amazing man."

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Man Sentenced to 46 Years for Murder, Doughnut Shop Robbery

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A 25-year-old man has been sentenced to 46 years and two months in prison for breaking into a Topeka home with three other people and killing a man after they robbed a doughnut shop. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that Erion Kirtdoll was sentenced Thursday for second-degree murder and aggravated robbery in the death of Tyrone Baggett. District Attorney Mike Kagay says Baggett was shot in February 2018 when four men broke into his home. Detectives also connected the four to an armed robbery about 45 minutes earlier at Daylight Donuts. Another suspect, Dion Troupe, is awaiting sentencing after pleading no contest to second-degree murder and three counts of aggravated robbery. And a plea hearing is scheduled for next week for a third man, Eli Perry.

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Kansas Woman Pleads Guilty in Death of Mother's Boyfriend

OSKALOOSA, Kan. (AP) — A Baldwin City woman has pleaded guilty in the death of her mother's boyfriend at a northeast Kansas lake.  Jefferson County Attorney Josh Ney announced Thursday that Ashlyn Hemmerling pleaded guilty to premeditated first-degree murder after prosecutors presented evidence in her trial in Jefferson County District Court.  She was charged in the March 2018 shooting death of 22-year-old Taylor Dean Sawyer in a remote area of Perry Lake.  Her boyfriend, 23-year-old Jonathan Blevins, was convicted in March of first-degree murder in Sawyer's death. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years.  The Topeka Capital-Journal reports authorities said Sawyer was the boyfriend of Hermmerling's mother, Sarah Hemmerling, who was charged with obstruction before that charge was dropped.  Hemmerling's sentencing is scheduled for July 25.

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Kansas Teen Who Died at Colorado Camp Likely Had Blood Clot

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. (AP) — Authorities say a Kansas teenager who died at a Colorado church camp likely had a blood clot that lodged in his lung.  Custer County Sheriff Shannon Byerly said in a news release that preliminary autopsy results indicate that 16-year-old Demarius Cox, of Hillsboro, Kansas, had a pulmonary embolism. Emergency crews rushed to the Sky Ranch Horn Creek summer camp Friday morning after receiving a report that the teen wasn't breathing. The camp is in a rural area of the Rocky Mountains near Westcliffe, about 150 miles southwest of Denver.  Demarius had been visiting the camp as part of a Hillsboro church's youth group. He had run track this year for his high school.

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Company Buys 2 Texas Water Parks in Deal with Schlitterbahn

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas-based water park company has sold two of its attractions and given the buyer the right to acquire its Kansas site where a 10-year-old boy was killed nearly three years ago.  On Thursday, Schlitterbahn announced the $261 million agreement with Cedar Fair Entertainment to sell a water park and resort in New Braunfels, Texas, and another property in Galveston, Texas. Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair will also have the right to buy the company's Kansas water park for $6 million in cash.  The deal comes after Schlitterbahn remained mum on its plans for the Kansas City, Kansas, park where Caleb Schwab was decapitated in August of 2016 on the 17-story Verruckt slide.  Caleb's family received nearly $20 million in settlements and two women who were seriously injured while riding with him settled for an undisclosed amount.

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Contents of Home of Imprisoned Racecar Driver Up for Sale

LEAWOOD, Kan. (AP) — The contents of the suburban Kansas City home of a pro racecar driver imprisoned for running an illegal $2 billion payday loan operation are going up for sale later this month as the government recovers assets to pay back cheated consumers.  The estate sale for Scott Tucker's house in Leawood runs from June 28 to June 30. IRS agents took possession of the $2.1 million, 4,500-square-foot house in March. Items for sale include designer furniture and clothing, artwork and gym equipment. The home itself isn't part of the sale.  Prosecutors say the former American Le Mans Series champion preyed on vulnerable borrowers and used the lending business proceeds to finance a professional auto racing team. He's serving more than 16 years in prison on fraud and other charges.

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Reno County Commission Rejects Wind Farm Proposal

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — The Reno County Commission has denied a proposal to build a wind farm in the county. The commission voted 2-1 Thursday on a proposal from Florida-based NextEra Energy for a 200-megawatt wind farm with more than 80 turbines in the southern part of the county. The Hutchinson News reports the permit required the commission's unanimous vote for approval. The commission must formalize the vote by resolution next week. NextEra spokesman Conlan Kennedy said the company was disappointed by the vote and is weighing its options. The project has created controversy since it was proposed. Opponents said the wind farm could hurt property values, generate noise and kill birds that fly into turbines. Supporters said the wind farm would bring economic and energy benefits to the county.

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Stormont Vail Acquires Naming Rights for Kansas Expo Center

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Stormont Vail Health has agreed to spend $2.575 million to acquire naming rights for the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka.  The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that Shawnee County commissioners approved the contract Thursday. County counselor Jim Crowl says the health system will pay the county $325,000 in the first year of the 10-year deal, and $250,000 in each of the next nine.  The event center's website domain immediately changed to reflect its new name, www.StormontVailEventsCenter.com.  The facility's manager, Spectra, said in a news release that there also will be major exterior and interior signage, a mother's room and brand recognition in all advertising for the facility.  The center is currently undergoing a $48 million makeover. Plans call for the work to be completed by May 2021.

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Mississippi River Dropping Below Flood Stage Along Iowa

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Mississippi River is dropping below flood stage along many of Iowa's riverfront cities after nearly three months of record highs caused by melting snow and torrential rain.  The National Weather Service says the river dropped below flood stage at Guttenberg, Iowa, early Tuesday, and was more than a half-foot under flood stage Thursday morning at one Dubuque gauge. The weather service says the river's been above flood stage in Dubuque for a record 85 days, breaking the old mark of 34 days set in 2011.  The river remains around 2.5 feet above flood stage at Davenport, where floodwaters surged into downtown after a barrier failed April 30.  Missouri River levels also have dropped but are expected to remain high for much of the summer.

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Endangered Wolf Pups from Kansas Zoo Released Into the Wild

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Two endangered Mexican wolf pups from a Kansas zoo have been released into the wild in Arizona. The Wichita Eagle reports that a male puppy, named Traveler, and a female puppy, named Jaunt, were born at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita. They were two weeks old last month when they were placed with a litter whose mother is wild. Mexican wolves are considered critically endangered with fewer than 150 members of the species remaining in the wild. They are native to the southwestern United States in Arizona and New Mexico, and in Chihuahua, Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will remotely observe the pack to monitor the results of the cross-fostering. But senior zookeeper Nancy Smith says the pack seems to be doing well.

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Truman Library and Museum to Undergo Massive Renovation

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum will close for about a year starting at the end of next month to undergo a $22 million renovation and expansion.  The Independence, Missouri, museum announced in a news release that the museum's last day open to the public will be July 22. The project will include a new entrance and lobby, a larger store and expanded exhibition galleries.  Besides the renovation, another $3 million is being raised for education, public programs and the library's endowment.  The museum's fundraising arm, the Truman Library Institute, has already raised $23 million for the project. The upgrade coincides with the upcoming 75th anniversary of the start of Truman's presidency, which began in 1945.

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