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Headlines for Monday, January 21, 2019

Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach "Seriously Considering" Running for U.S. Senate

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is considering running for the U.S. Senate in 2020. He told The Associated Press: "I am seriously considering it." Four-term Republican Senator Pat Roberts announced earlier this month that he would not seek re-election. Kobach said he does not have a timetable for deciding whether to seek the GOP nomination. Kobach is out of political office after eight years as Kansas secretary of state after losing the governor's race last year. Kobach has been a vocal ally of President Donald Trump and had Trump's endorsement. State Treasurer Jake LaTurner already is running for Roberts' seat. Other Republicans who've expressed an interest include western Kansas congressman Roger Marshall, former Governor Jeff Colyer, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle.

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Key Part of Kansas Governor Laura Kelly's Budget Plan Appears Doomed

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A key part of Kansas Governor Laura Kelly's budget plan appears doomed, creating potential trouble for her proposals to boost education funding and expand Medicaid. Opposition hardened swiftly after the governor proposed cutting the state's annual payments to its pension system for teachers and government workers. The move would free up $145 million during the budget year that begins in July to allow Kelly to increase spending on public schools, expand Medicaid health coverage for the needy, finance other initiatives and maintain healthy cash reserves. The pension system's board of trustees voted unanimously Friday to condemn the proposal. Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature also have criticized it. Budget Director Larry Campbell said that the proposal makes pension payments more manageable without endangering retirees' benefits.

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Kris Kobach Finishes Legal Education Ordered by Judge

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has told a federal judge he's completed extra legal education that she required of him as a sanction in a voting rights lawsuit. Kobach filed documents Friday in federal court showing he finished a six-hour course called "Civil Trial: Everything You Need to Know" on January 4th. The course included one hour on ethics. U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson ordered the extra education last year over what she concluded were violations of disclosure-of-evidence rules. Kobach had until June 30 to complete it. Kobach said he was being held responsible for his legal team's actions, not personal conduct. The lawsuit challenged a Kansas law defended by Kobach that required new voters show proof of their U.S. citizenship when registering. Robinson struck it down.

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New Kansas Secretary of State Reviewing Voter Database Program

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The future of a much-criticized database that checks if voters are illegally registering in multiple states is up in the air now that former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach no longer holds that office. A spokeswoman for Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab says the office is reviewing Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program and consulting with other member states. Spokeswoman Katie Koupal says no formal decision has been made either way about whether to keep the program. Crosscheck compares voter registration lists among participating states to look for duplicates. The program is aimed at cleaning voter records and preventing voter fraud, but has drawn criticism for its high error rate and lax security. The program was started in 2005 and had only four participants when Kobach took office in 2011. By 2017, 30 states were participating.

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Kansas Congresswoman Sharice Davids: Reopening Government is Top Priority

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Newly elected Democratic Kansas Congresswoman Sharice Davids says her top priority is reopening the government. Davids says the partial government shutdown "completely unacceptable." There are nearly 19,000 federal employees in the Kansas City area, where her district is located. Davids says she would push for back wages for furloughed government workers as well as low-wage contractors. President Donald Trump signed a bill last week guaranteeing back pay for federal workers, but the law does not cover federal contractors. 

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Political "Outsider" Steve Watkins Hiring Veteran GOP Insiders to Guide Him

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — After touting himself as a political outsider during last fall's campaign, Rep. Steve Watkins has surrounded himself with veteran political insiders and people with deep roots in Kansas' Republican Party in the early stages of his term in Congress. Watkins's new hires collectively have more than 30 years of congressional experience. They include Colin Brainard, a former chief of staff for Rep. Lynn Jenkins, to run the office, and Jim Joice, a former aide to Rep. Kevin Yoder and Kansas Republican Party official, as communications director. Watkins, who never previously held elected office, is now defining himself as a pragmatic conservative, The Kansas City Star reported. Some Republicans were unimpressed by Watkins during the campaign because he met with Democratic officials before running as a Republican. And he won a seven-person primary with 26 percent of the vote after his father gave $765,000 to a super PAC to help his campaign. Kris Marple, a former Wilson County GOP chairman, said during the campaign that Watkins could be replaced in two years if he didn't live up to his campaign promises. Watkins's staff is made up mostly of former Jenkins staffers. He also joined the Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which includes members of both parties and has policy goals of balancing the budget and protecting Medicare and Social Security. Watkins has also met with fellow Kansas freshman Rep. Sharice Davids, the lone Democrat in the Kansas delegation, to discuss some areas where they can collaborate. The first bill that Watkins is co-sponsoring would block federal dollars for Planned Parenthood, a longtime goal of conservative Republicans. Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion organization, endorsed Watkins after his primary win but made clear he needed to establish an anti-abortion voting record to count on its support in future elections. Mark Kahrs, Kansas's Republican national committeeman, said Watkins won't have much chance to get legislation passed as a freshman Republican in the Democratic-led House. But he will have opportunities to establish his conservative credentials by voting "no" on bills authored by Democrats, Kahrs said.

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Lawrence Police Expected to Have Body Cameras by Summer

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Lawrence police officials say all officers in the department should be wearing body cameras sometime this summer. The Lawrence Journal-World reports 10 officers, with support from four staff members, have been testing the cameras since November. Police Captain Trent McKinley said the department will evaluate the test results early next month and then select a camera vendor. The cameras are budgeted to cost $462,000. Half of the cost will be funded by a federal grant, and the city of Lawrence will match those funds. The city has also hired a technician to help with the body camera program. McKinley said the department is still working on policies governing the use of the cameras. McKinley said the cameras should be deployed this summer after staff is trained.

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Kansas Humane Society Reports Records Set in 2018

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Humane Society says it set a record for the number of homes or placements it found for animals last year. The agency says it placed 11,204 animals and had a 94 percent save rate last year. KFDI reports the Humane Society said its save rate increased by 50 percent since it moved into its new facility in Wichita in 2009. The organization says 8,432 animals were adopted in 2018, and another 1,955 were transferred to rescue partners. Another 710 animals were reunited with their owners and 107 were transferred to partner shelters. The group also reported that it performed 2,281 donor-subsidized spay and neuter surgeries for animals last year. The agency also expanded its program to find placements for feral or semi-social cats.

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Some Lawrence Officials Frustrated by Delayed Energy Debate

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Several Lawrence officials and residents have expressed frustration that the City Commission didn't discuss an offer to power the city exclusively with wind energy before the option was no longer available. City staffers said Westar Energy's offer was under review but officials hadn't determined whether the energy plan was worth pursuing, the Lawrence Journal-World reported . Westar had approached some of its large-demand customers in July to purchase wind energy at a fixed rate for the next 20 years. The Missouri-based utility had 200 megawatts of wind power available from a planned wind farm to be in operation by next year, and the energy reservations were offered on a first-come, first-served basis. All energy has since been allocated. Douglas County, the city of Manhattan, the University of Kansas and Kansas State University were among the entities that took advantage of Westar's 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour fuel rate offer for a 20-year term. Lawrence officials don't have a current figure of how much the city paid for energy in 2018. But two years ago, Lawrence paid 10.8 cents total per kilowatt hour, according to information provided by Jasmin Moore, Douglas County's sustainability director. Mayor Lisa Larsen and Commissioners Jennifer Ananda and Matthew Herbert said they wished the contract proposal would have been discussed when action could have been taken. Dave Wagner, the city's municipal services and operations director, told city commissioners this past week that the city had been working on a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed energy contract. Although the analysis wasn't complete in time to take action, the city will be more prepared in the future, he said. City Manager Tom Markus said that in hindsight, he would have provided a report to the commission earlier. He said city staff will pay attention to such notifications in the future.

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9-Year-Old Boy Fatally Shot at Wichita Mobile Home

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita police say a 9-year-old boy died in a shooting at a mobile home park. Police spokesman Charley Davidson says three children who lived at the home and two of their friends were in the home when the boy was shot Monday morning. The boy was one of the friends visiting the family. No further information was immediately available. Investigators remain at the scene.

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Study: Kansas Strictest in Limiting Control of Food Policy

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) - A new study says Kansas goes further than any other state in limiting state and local agencies from influencing policy about food nutrition labels and portion sizes. New York University researcher Jennifer Pomeranz's recent study found that Kansas does more to limit the authority of local governments on food policy than any of the 13 other states with similar legislation. The state's 2016 pre-emption law prevents local authorities from restricting portion sizes, taxing soda and sugary drinks and banning "incentive items," such as toys in a McDonald's Happy Meal. Similar bills have been cropping up across the country, but Pomeranz says Kansas' law goes further than others by limiting the state Legislature's power. Pomeranz says Kansas basically handed over control of food policy issues to the federal government. 

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Project Investigates How Drones Can Predict Spread of Wildfire

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - A University of Missouri researcher is teaming up with scholars in Kansas and Georgia to develop drone technology to monitor and potentially predict the spread of wildfires. The $1.2 million research project that began last month aims to use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to collect real-time data and send the information to firefighters to help contain wildfires. University of Missouri professor Ming Xin says the drones follow a simulation that can precisely predict where a fire will spread for the next 10 to 30 minutes. He's working with University of Kansas professor Haiyang Chao and Georgia State University professor Xiaolin Hu. Nearly 56,000 wildfires burning across the U.S. last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation are sponsoring the project.

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Haskell University's Acting President to Stay in Post for Another 60 Days

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The acting president of Haskell Indian Nations University will continue in the job for two more months. The school in Lawrence said Friday that Daniel Wildcat, a longtime Haskell faculty member, will stay in that role until March 18. Wildcat took over temporary leadership November 20, when the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education announced the current president, Venida Chenault, would be on special assignment for the BIE for up to 60 days. The Lawrence Journal-World reports Chenault's 60 days would have ended today (MON).  Chenault's leave was announced days after a report said university administrators underreported crime statistics and didn't follow policy on handling misconduct complaints.

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Kansas Electricity Costs More than Other States

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A report says Kansas customers are paying more for electricity than in neighboring states because of investments in coal and wind power. The Kansas Corporation Commission recently presented its analysis of electricity rates to lawmakers. The commission found that utilities Westar Energy and Kansas City Power & Light spent billions of dollars over the last decade on coal-fired power plants in Kansas. They also spent millions of dollars complying with a now-repealed state rule for 20 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. Commission Chief Accountant Justin Grady says Kansas decided to invest in coal when it was cheaper than gas, but the price of natural gas has since dropped. The state Senate Utilities Committee plans to discuss the report later this week.

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Snowplow Driver Dies in JoCo Rollover Crash

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) — A snowplow driver for the Kansas Department of Transportation is dead after the plow he was driving on U.S. Highway 69 rolled over. The Kansas Department of Transportation says the crash happened around 6 a.m. Saturday in southern Johnson County, south of the Kansas City metropolitan area. Officials say the rollover happened as roads remained slick from a winter storm that had moved through the area Friday night. The driver has been identified as 25-year-old Stephen Windler of Paola. The Kansas Highway Patrol is investigating the crash.

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Overland Park Man Charged in Fraud Scheme

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — A 49-year-old Overland Park man is facing federal charges in an alleged scheme that prosecutors say cost the government more than $12 million. Troy Bechtel was charged with two counts of major program fraud and two counts of lying to investigators. The U.S. Attorney's office said Bechtel and others falsely claimed that United Medical Design Builders, of Merriam, was controlled by Joseph Dial Jr., a disabled Army veteran. The company won a $12.7 million U.S. Defense Department contract to design and build four U.S. Air Force bases under a program for businesses owned or operated by disabled military veterans. The indictment alleges Bechtel ran the company and Dial was rarely in the office. Dial has pleaded guilty to wire fraud and program fraud and is awaiting sentencing.

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