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Headlines for Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Kansas Tax Collections $11M Under Expectations for March 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas says it collected $11 million less in taxes than anticipated this month. The state Department of Revenue said in a preliminary report Tuesday that the state collected $391 million in taxes in March, when it expected to take in $402 million. The shortfall is 2.8 percent. Since the fiscal year began in July 2014, tax collections have been $48 million less than anticipated, or about 1.2 percent short of expectations. The state collected almost $4 billion in taxes during the past nine months. The lower-than-anticipated tax collections this month could complicate efforts by legislators to close a budget shortfall projected at nearly $600 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But the department noted that individual income tax collections are running ahead of expectations.

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Kansas Lawmakers Agree on Plan to Issue $1B in Pension Bonds 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Legislative negotiators in Kansas have agreed on a proposal to authorize $1 billion in bonds to bolster the short-term financial health of the state's pension system for teachers and government workers. Three senators and three House members settled their differences Tuesday. Both chambers could vote on the plan this week. The proposal is less aggressive than one from Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to issue $1.5 billion in bonds. Budget Director Shawn Sullivan said the administration hasn't seen the new plan. Supporters of issuing bonds argue that it will give the pension system an infusion of cash and immediately narrow a long-term gap in funding for pension benefits. They believe the pension's system's investment earnings on the funds will exceed bond payments. Critics see the move as risky.

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Kansas Senate Panel Approves Bill to Overhaul Civil Service 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas Senate committee has approved a bill that could shrink the state's civil service system and lessen job protections for government employees. The Commerce Committee's endorsement of the measure Tuesday sent it to the Senate for debate. The House passed the bill last week. The proposal comes from Republican Governor Sam Brownback and would allow state agencies to remove jobs from the civil service when filling vacancies or when employees accept promotions or transfers. Supporters contend state agencies would operate more like private businesses and have more flexibility in rewarding employees who perform well. Public employee groups say the bill would lessen protections from arbitrary firings and demotions. The Senate committee's vote was part of a busy day for lawmakers that included budget negotiations between the two chambers. 

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Kansas Senate Panel Considers Expanding Liquor Licenses 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas counties would be allowed to expand liquor licenses under a bill being discussed by a state Senate panel. Lobbyists and representatives of supermarkets and liquor stores gave dueling testimony on Tuesday during a hearing in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. The bill would allow big box retailers to sell liquor, wine and full strength beer in counties that approve the measure through a local election. Supporters say it would be more convenient for consumers, but opponents say it would hurt the state's roughly 750 individually owned liquor stores. Committee Chairman Republican Senator  Ralph Ostmeyer says the bill is unlikely to pass, though he acknowledged that intense lobbying efforts by supporters would likely push the measure through the Legislature eventually.

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Kansas House Panel Considers Bill Requiring University Prospectuses 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas universities would be required to publicize information on their graduates' average salaries, student loan debt and employment under a bill considered by a House panel. The House Appropriations Committee conducted a hearing Tuesday on the bill, which supporters say would help prospective students choose a university and major by requiring institutions to provide a "prospectus." The information would compare the average economic outcomes of their graduates from each degree track. The Senate already has approved the measure. Some lawmakers have balked at the potential cost of up to $5.5 million annually and said broader research on such subjects already is available. Kansas Board of Regents President Andy Tompkins testified against the bill, while no one testified in favor of it during the hearing.

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ACLU Opposing Kansas Bill on Membership in Campus Religious Groups

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union says a Kansas bill on religious student organizations would allow discrimination on campus. The House Federal and State Affairs Committee considered a bill Monday that would prevent universities and colleges from denying benefits to religious student organizations based on their membership policies. The bill would allow religious student organizations to require their members to comply with the associations' religious beliefs. Supporters said this would protect religious organizations from being pushed off campus. But Kansas ACLU Executive Director Micah Kubic testified that the bill would allow student groups with discriminatory policies to receive public funds. Republican Representative Stephanie Clayton from Overland Park expressed concerns that the bill was too broad and could be wrongly interpreted.

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Ag Department Estimates Farmers' Spring Planting Plans 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The Agriculture Department estimates that Kansas farmers will plant corn on the same number of acres this season, even though growers elsewhere are cutting back. Its prospective plantings report released Tuesday by National Agricultural Statistics Service forecast that Kansas would sow in 4.05 million acres of corn. Nationwide, NASS has forecast the lowest planted corn acreage since 2010 due to lower prices. Kansas growers are also expected to plant 2.9 million acres into sorghum, up 2 percent from a year ago. Farmers in the state plan to reduced their soybean acres to 3.8 million acres, down 5 percent from last year. The revised estimate for winter wheat acres planted last fall in Kansas is now at 9.4 million acres. That is down 2 percent from the previous year.

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University of Kansas Plans New Immigration Studies Center

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The University of Kansas has hired two sociologists to plan a center for migration and immigration studies. The university says Victor Agadjanian and Cecilia Menjívar, both distinguished professors at Arizona State University, will begin work in Kansas this fall. The Lawrence Journal-World reports the center will use funds allocated to the university's Foundation Distinguished Professor initiative. It will first operate within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences but the university hopes the center will eventually become a self-supported research center.

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Hallmark to Cut 200 Jobs by Summer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Hallmark Cards is offering a buyout program as it tries to cut 200 jobs by this summer. The company announced the buyout offers Monday for eligible employees in its product development and creation departments. Employees will be offered severance payments and outplacement assistance. President David Hall says the company is looking for ways to reduce costs as consumer spending changes. The Kansas City Star reports eligibility for the buyouts will be based on a combination of years of service and age. If enough employees turn down the buyout offer, involuntary layoffs will likely occur. 

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Homicide Suspect Sentenced for Police Chase

DODGE CITY, Kan. (AP) — A man was sentenced to two years and two months in prison for leading police on a chase after he allegedly shot and killed a woman in Ford County. Twenty-seven-year-old Victor Gutierrez Jr., was sentenced Monday for the chase in September through Stafford and Reno counties. District Attorney Stephen Maxwell said Gutierrez reach speeds up to 140 mph over 12 miles before he was stopped in Reno County. The Hutchinson News reports Gutierrez is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 30-year-old Natasha Pruitt in her home. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 5.

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Wichita Man Sentenced to Prison for Mail Theft, Bank Fraud

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Wichita man must serve more than 6 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges in connection with a federal mail theft case. U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom says 27-year-old Justin D. Anderson has pleaded guilty to mail theft, bank fraud and unlawful possession of a firearm, A judge on Monday sentenced Anderson to 78 months in federal prison. Anderson admitted that he stole mail addressed to an insurance company from a U.S. Postal Service mailbox in October 2013. He also admitted to having a pistol he wasn't supposed to have after a previous felony conviction. Anderson acknowledged he cashed an $800 check stolen from a receptacle after adding his name on the payee line.

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Spencer Museum of Art Prepares to Close for Renovation

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The Spencer Museum of Arts on the University of Kansas campus is planning a series of events before it closes for renovations. The museum says the "Last Look" events will end with a closing party on April 12. Renovations are expected to begin in May and be completed in 2016. The first phase of the project, expected to cost $5 million, will overhaul the main lobby and central court. It will include an elevator and staircase connecting the museum's two floors of gallery space and a floor-to-ceiling window. On April 12, the museum and the university's Natural History Museum will host a "Day of Creativity," with performances, demonstrations and other activities, followed by a closing party.

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Feds Charge Union Pacific for Sulfuric Acid Spill in Kansas 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ Prosecutors have filed a misdemeanor charge against Union Pacific Railroad over a 2012 spill of sulfuric acid after a derailment at the company's Herington yard in central Kansas. Information filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Kansas alleges the railroad spilled 114,297 pounds of sulfuric acid from a railcar in Herington into Lime Creek.  Company spokesman Mark Davis says Union Pacific is ``committed to protecting the environment now and for future generations.''  He says there is no evidence of criminal intent, adding the company is disappointed by the government's decision to pursue the misdemeanor charge. The railroad is accused of violating the Federal Water Pollution Control Act during the January 8, 2012 incident. If convicted, the railroad is subject to a maximum fine of $200,000 per violation. 

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Ring Thief Sentenced to 11 Years 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Wichita man was sentenced to prison for stealing a wedding ring from a woman who was dying in her car at a drive-through restaurant. Twenty-one-year-old Daquantrius Johnson was sentenced Monday to 11 years and four months for the theft in December 2013 at a Taco Bell restaurant. Prosecutors say he and two other men took the wedding ring, a purse and other items from Danielle Zimmerman as she was unconscious from a brain aneurism. She died the next day. Johnson will serve the sentence consecutively to sentences for other crimes, for a total sentence of about 20½ years. Despite public pleas and possible rewards, Zimmerman's ring was never found.

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Judge Gives Tentative Approval to Deal in Tyson Meatpacking Case 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ A judge has granted preliminary approval to a proposed settlement of more than $730,000 in the class-action lawsuit brought against Tyson by workers at the company's meatpacking plant in Emporia.  The deal ends a nearly eight-year legal battle. U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten also cleared the way on Monday for notices to go out to the nearly 4,900 affected current and former workers.  The court scheduled a final approval and fairness hearing for July 2 at the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. The lawsuit alleges that Tyson did not pay its workers for the time they spent putting on and taking off protective clothing and walking. Under the proposal, the workers would split about $377,000. Their attorneys would receive about $351,000 in attorney fees.

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Monsanto Donates $4M to Effort to Save Monarch Butterflies 

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Agribusiness giant Monsanto says it will commit $4 million to help stem the decline of monarch butterflies. The St. Louis-based company says a $3.6 million donation will be made to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund. One-third of the money matches what a federal wildlife agency is contributing, with the remaining funds set aside to mirror what other federal agencies offer over the next three years. Monsanto also is offering $400,000 to aid experts and groups working on the butterfly's behalf. Environmentalists and scientists say the species has experienced a 90 percent decline in population. Most of the decline is blamed on habitat destruction due in part to weed killers and herbicide-resistant plants like those Monsanto and other agribusinesses offer.

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Murals Showing History of Written Word Installed at Topeka High Library

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The history of the written word is being showcased at Topeka High School's library through four murals thanks to an anonymous graduate who commissioned the artwork. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports the paintings by Kansas artist Mark Flickinger are valued at $96,000. The murals begin with the ancient scripts, including Sumerian figures carving cuneiform and ancient Egyptians making hieroglyphics. The second panel shows medieval scribes and the transition from scribes to the printing press. The third depicts the written word through the ages of enlightenment, industry and progress in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The final panel illustrates the digital age, with a girl's face illuminated by a technological device. The art will be unveiled to the public on Wednesday night.

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K-State's Lockett Wins Jet Award as Nation's Top Return Man 

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Kansas State University's Tyler Lockett has been named winner of the Jet Award as the top return man in college football in 2014. Lockett, who will be honored at a banquet in Omaha, Nebraska, on Thursday, led the nation with his 19.1-yard punt return average. He ran two punts back for touchdowns. Lockett also averaged 20.1 yards on kick returns. The award is in its fifth year and is named for Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers, a wide receiver and return specialist who won the 1972 Heisman Trophy at Nebraska. Rodgers and a panel of football writers and broadcasters select the winner.

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Moustakas Hits Grand Slam in Royals' Victory

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — Mike Moustakas hit a grand slam in a seven-run first inning as the Kansas City Royals defeated the Texas Rangers 11-7 in a spring training exhibition game Monday. Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer each had three of the Royals' 15 hits. Gordon, who was held out of early games while rehabbing from December right wrist surgery, had only three singles in 24 at-bats, entering the game. Rangers starter Lisalverto Bonilla retired only one of eight batters he faced before being pulled after 37 pitches.  The Rangers' Adam Rosales, Leonys Martin, Jake Smolinski and Ryan Rua each hit solo home runs off Royals left-hander Jason Vargas.
 

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