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Regional Headlines for Wednesday, May 22, 2013


UPDATE: Kansas Lawmakers' Tax Negotiations Hit New Snag

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas lawmakers have hit a new snag in their negotiations on tax issues. House Republican negotiators Wednesday rejected a proposal from GOP senators to impose a lower sales tax on groceries than on other consumer goods. The negotiators weren't sure when they'd resume talks. The latest plan from Republican senators would set the sales tax on groceries at 5.7 percent in July while taxing other items at 6.25 percent. The current 6.3 percent tax is scheduled by law to fall to 5.7 percent in July. Republican Governor Sam Brownback and GOP senators want to cancel most or all of the scheduled decline to raise revenue so that the state can cut income taxes. House Republicans have proposed dropping the sales tax to 6 percent.


Governor Brownback Pushing KS Lawmakers to Conclude Tax Debate

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Governor Sam Brownback is telling Kansas legislators that it's time for them to resolve their differences on tax issues and finish their work for the year. The Republican governor issued his statement Wednesday after negotiations between the House and Senate on adjusting the state sales tax hit a new snag. The legislative negotiators were unable to agree on canceling all or part of a sales tax decline scheduled for July. They planned to meet again Thursday. Brownback wants to keep the sales tax at 6.3 percent to raise revenue so that Kansas can follow the massive income-tax cuts approved last year with more income tax reductions. The governor said the Republican-controlled Legislature is positioning the state for economic growth. But he added, "It is time to wrap up the session."


McConnell Selected for New Air Force Tanker Base

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita's McConnell Air Force Base has been selected to be the main operating base for the Air Force's new KC-46A air refueling tanker. Members of the Kansas congressional delegation issued a joint statement Wednesday announcing the Air Force decision. The aircraft will replace the aging KC-135 fleet flown by crews for the past 50 years. According to the delegation, the Air Force will base 36 of the new aircraft at McConnell starting in 2016. It also will be investing $192 million in upgrades to the base. McConnell was chosen over bases in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington. Forbes Field in Topeka was not selected as a site for the Air National Guard base but the delegation said the Topeka location would not be precluded from future refueling assignments.


Senators Praise McConnell Tanker Decision

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Senator Jerry Moran says the Air Force decision to base a new air refueling tanker at McConnell Air Force Base will help protect the base against any future military cutbacks or closures. The Kansas congressional delegation says McConnell will be the main operating site for the KC-46A, which will replace the KC-135. The Air Force will base 36 of the new aircraft at McConnell starting in 2016 and will spent $192 million on upgrades. McConnell was chosen over bases in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington. Republican Senator Pat Roberts says McConnell's makeover following a devastating tornado in 1991 gave it a solid platform and a "leg up" in the competition. He says it also fulfills an Air Force general's promise made after bombers were relocated to a base in South Dakota.

Lawmakers' Attempt to Block Education Standards Stalls

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A question about the legality of putting a policy statement in the Kansas budget stalled some lawmakers' efforts to block the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards in state schools. Kansas joined more than 40 states in adopting the national education standards in 2010 and school districts are in varying stages of implementing them. However, opponents wanted to stop the standards through a budget provision that would ban using any state money on Common Core. The House dropped the language Tuesday in its final budget offer, saying it would have violated a constitutional ban on having two subjects in a single bill. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades says Wednesday he understands concerns about the standards but there were few options left to stop them this session.


US Senate Passes Bill with Topeka Levee Funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The U.S. Senate has approved a bill that includes funding aimed at improving Topeka's levees. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the bill approved in the Senate would provide about $15 million in federal matching funds for Topeka to correct problems with its levee system along the Kansas River. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has told Topeka to correct levee system deficiencies that could impede flood control. The Army Corps of Engineers would pay for 65 percent of the restoration costs if Congress approved the project as part of the Water Resources Development Act. Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran voted in favor of the bill the Senate approved last week. The bill still needs to go to the U.S. House and President Barack Obama for approval.

Civil Engineers Give Kansas Infrastructure a C-

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Civil engineers are giving Kansas' infrastructure a grade of C minus. The regional chapters of the American Society of Civil Engineers released the letter grade Wednesday. It's part of a report card that evaluated the state's aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, levees, railroads, roads and schools. Besides the state's overall grade, each sub-category also received a grade. The engineers found the most faults with the state's bridges and dams, rating them a D-minus. The report said Kansas has nearly 3,000 structurally deficient bridges. The highest grades awarded were for the state's roads and schools, with both receiving a C-plus. The engineers noted that decreased funding is affecting road quality. They also said many of the state's schools were built in the 1950s and are now 60 years old.

Riley County Boys Accused of Posting Online Pornographic Images

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Riley County officials say five school boys are suspected of posting pornographic images of at least 10 juvenile girls online. County police spokesman Matthew Droge said the number of girls whose photos were posted could increase as the investigation continues. The boys are students in middle and high school. They allegedly posted the pictures in the last several months. The Manhattan Mercury says that the police report includes several possible charges such as sexual exploitation of a child, promoting pornography of a minor and conspiracy. Droge did not say how the boys obtained the photos. He also would not say where they were posted, other than it was not Facebook or Twitter. School superintendent Brad Starnes says the alleged incidents did not happen at school or during school time.

Via Christi Health Cutting Jobs Throughout Kansas

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita-based Via Christi Health says tough finances are forcing it to eliminate 350 to 400 jobs at its facilities throughout Kansas. The nonprofit health system announced the decision Tuesday, saying it will involve layoffs and the elimination of some vacant positions. The cuts amount to about 4 percent of Via Christi's total employment. The reductions are expected to take place by the end of June. Via Christi says that senior leaders will take salary reductions of about 4 percent. President and CEO Jeff Korsmo said the system is not operating at a loss, but revenue is about $18 million below budget 10 months into its current fiscal year.


EPA Fines Coffeyville Refinery $300K

COFFEYVILLE, Kan. (AP) — The federal government is fining a southeast Kansas refinery $300,000 for deficiencies in the company's program to curb air pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency's regional office said in a release Wednesday that Coffeyville Resources Refining & Marketing has agreed to pay the penalty to settle alleged violations of the Clean Air Act at its Coffeyville plant. The proposed settlement addresses deficiencies in the refinery's risk management program, which is aimed at preventing and reducing the severity of accidental releases of air pollution. The settlement is subject to a 30-day comment period and approval by a federal court. The settlement is the third for the company since 2012. The first also addressed air pollution, while the second settlement dealt with a 2007 oil spill into the Verdigris River.


3 SW Kansas Children Found Safe 5 Miles from Home

LIBERAL, Kan. (AP) — Three young children who wandered five miles from their southwest Kansas farmhouse have been found safe after a frantic, 15-hour search. The High Plains Daily Leader reports that authorities in Seward County were notified of the children's disappearance Tuesday evening. A citizen spotted them around 9:30 am Wednesday in Liberal and took them to a business. They were reported to be tired and hungry. A family member had been looking after the children — two girls, ages 3 and 5, and a 7-year-old boy — at their rural Seward County home Tuesday while other relatives went to Liberal on errands. Law enforcement officers and first responders from southwest Kansas and nearby Oklahoma searched for the children throughout the night, scouring fields on ATV's. Search dogs from Wichita and Hutchinson also took part.


Feds Charge Ex-Police Officer with Bribe Scheme

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A former Wichita police officer has been charged with conspiring to bribe a car-theft victim in hope of saving her job. The U.S. attorney's office says 34-year-old ex-officer Joletta Vallejo was indicted Wednesday on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy. Also charged in the case are 40-year-old Patrick Melendrez and 30-year-old Courtney Foster, both of Wichita. The defendants' home phones were either disconnected or unanswered Wednesday. It's not known if they had lawyers. Prosecutors say an internal police investigation concluded that Vallejo violated department rules in handling reports of a domestic violence case and a related car theft. The indictment accuses Vallejo of arranging last August for Melendrez to pay the theft victim $150 to recant his statement and another $150 if she kept her job.


3 Snared in Trucking Scam Face Court in Kansas

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Arraignments have been scheduled for three California residents accused of trying to steal nearly $83,000 worth of beef from a southwest Kansas slaughterhouse. The U.S. Attorney's office on Wednesday announced the June 4 court dates in Wichita for 53-year-old Oganes Nagapetian; his 46-year-old wife, Larisa; and his 50-year-old brother, Tigran Nagapetian. All are from North Hollywood, California. An indictment unsealed earlier this month charges them with conspiracy to violate U.S. laws. Prosecutors allege the three tried to steal a semi-load of processed beef in November 2011 from the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Holcomb by pretending to be legitimate freight haulers. U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom says meatpacking plants in Dodge City, Liberal, Holcomb and Garden City have been targeted in similar trucking schemes on several occasions.

Obama Opposes GOP Bill on Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House says President Barack Obama opposes a House bill that would speed approval of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. The White House said Tuesday that the bill "seeks to circumvent longstanding and proven processes" by removing a requirement for a presidential permit. The legislation also says no new environmental studies are needed. House Republicans say the bill is needed to ensure the long-delayed pipeline is built. The project, which first was proposed in 2008, would carry oil extracted from tar sands in western Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast. Opponents say the pipeline would carry "dirty oil" that could trigger global warming, while supporters say it would create jobs and bolster North American energy resources. A House vote is expected Wednesday.

Feds Put Iola Site on Cleanup Priorities List

IOLA, Kan. (AP) — Federal regulators are putting the site of an old zinc and lead smelting operation in southeast Kansas on a list of hazardous waste places with highest priority for cleanup. The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it was placing the former United Zinc & Associated Smelters Site on the federal Superfund National Priorities List. The land is located in and around Iola in Allen County, where several zinc and lead smelting businesses operated between 1902 and 1925. The area is contaminated with high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and zinc. The priority designation makes the site eligible for extensive, long-term funding under the Superfund program. The EPA says the governor's office and Iola's mayor sent letters of support for the listing.

Kansas Deputy Accused of Sexual Contact with Inmate

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — A deputy at a central Kansas jail is accused of having illegal sexual relations with a female inmate and bribing or intimidating two others. Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson announced the charges Tuesday against 30-year-old Jonathan Diaz. Henderson says he asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to get involved after learning of the allegations two weeks ago. District Attorney Keith Schroeder, who filed the charges, told The Hutchinson News that the sexual contact charge involves a female inmate more than 18 years old. Schroeder says the two alleged victims of bribery and intimidation are also older than 18. Diaz remained jailed Tuesday on $100,000 bond, with a status hearing scheduled June 4. He does not yet have a lawyer.

Pharmacist Admits to Misbranding Dialysis Drugs

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Tennessee pharmacist has admitted distributing a misbranded Chinese-made drug that was given to kidney dialysis patients in Kansas. The U.S. Attorney's office says 53-year-old Robert Harshbarger Jr., of Kingsport, Tennessee pleaded guilty Tuesday in Topeka to one count each of distributing a misbranded drug and health care fraud. Harshbarger admitted that from 2004 to 2009, he substituted a cheaper Chinese import for an iron sucrose drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The drugs were given to patients of Kansas Dialysis Services. Prosecutors say there were no reports of harm, but patients were put at risk because the FDA could not assure the drugs' effectiveness and safety. Harshbarger's plea deal calls for four years in prison, restitution of nearly $849,000 and a forfeiture of $425,000.

Hutchinson Council Supports Fireworks Display

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — It appears Hutchinson area residents might see a big Fourth of July fireworks display after all. The fireworks show was in jeopardy after a new city policy wiped out the revenue that used to pay for it. But now, Hutchinson is contributing $10,000 toward a $15,500 show at the Kansas State Fairgrounds. The Hutchinson City Council expressed a verbal show of support for the proposal on Tuesday, althrough a formal vote was not taken. City officials are drafting a contract.  The Hutchinson News reports that in the past, revenue from fireworks vendors paid for the holiday show. But after the city banned aerial fireworks last year, no fireworks vendors applied to work in the city this year. Eagle Communications and Showalter Fireworks have agreed to contribute the remaining $5,500.

Garden City Gives Initial Approval to Water Park

GARDEN CITY, Kan. (AP) — The Garden City Commission has given first-round approval to a proposed $25 million development that would include an indoor water park, a hotel and a restaurant. The city commission on Tuesday approved a memorandum of understanding with Stone Development Inc. regarding tax increment financing incentives and naming the development a Community Improvement District. The council also adopted a resolution to create a redevelopment district for the project. The commission will consider a development agreement at a future meeting. Attorney Evan Fitt, who is working with the developer, says the water park is planned as an attraction for Garden City residents and to lure outside visitors. The Garden City Telegram reports that developers estimate the water park could attract 35,000 tourists per year, bringing $6.8 million to the city annually.

Corrections Team Wins Kansas Weight Loss Contest

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A team of Kansas Department of Corrections workers are the biggest losers in Governor Sam Brownback's weight loss challenge. The corrections employees, who work at the women's prison in Topeka, bested more than 1,000 five-member teams from around the state. The corrections workers shed nearly 265 pounds — about 19 percent of their total weight — over four months and received a cash prize Tuesday of $5,000. A group of state transportation workers from Fort Scott finished second for losing slightly less than 19 percent of their collective weight. The competition ended with participants shedding more than 44,000 pounds in all. Brownback fielded his own five-member team and reported dropping seven pounds from his frame.


First Class of Kauffman Scholars College Graduates

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The first class of Kansas City students who were given a free college education through the Kauffman Foundation is graduating from college this year. The foundation launched the Kauffman Scholars program in 2003 with seventh-graders, with a goal of helping students from low-income households have access to college. More than half of the 125 people in the first class quit college or are not on pace to graduate within five years. Seven more classes will follow this one, with the final participating class currently in eighth-grade. Those students are projected to be college seniors in 2021. The Kansas City Star reports that the foundation is planning changes to improve the graduation rate. The program will limit which colleges the students can attend and make more efforts to prepare them for college.

Clearwire Board Approves Higher Sprint Offer

BELLEVUE, Wash. (AP) — Clearwire wants to accept a richer buyout offer made by Sprint this week and is recommending that shareholders vote in favor of it. Sprint upped its bid by 14 percent to $2.5 billion Tuesday for the wireless data network operator. Some shareholders have opposed the deal, including Crest Financial, which spurned the latest bid as well. Sprint Nextel is offering $3.40 per share for the half of Clearwire Corporation that it does not already own. Its previous offer, from December, was for $2.97 per share. Clearwire said Wednesday that shareholders will be able to vote on May 31. Only shareholders of record as of April 2 are eligible. Sprint, based in Overland Park, is Clearwire's only major wholesale customer, and uses its network to provide "Sprint 4G" service.

'Alien Worlds and Androids' Exhibit Opens in KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — An exhibit that tells the story of the search for alien life is opening at Kansas City's Union Station. The interactive exhibit is called "Alien Worlds and Androids." It opens to the public Friday. Visitors will learn about efforts to explore remote solar systems and extreme environments found on Earth. The exhibit also will explore artificial intelligence and the use of robots as space explorers.


UPDATE: Kansas Lawmakers' Sales Tax Talks Take New Twist

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators are considering a proposal to impose a lower state sales tax on groceries than on other consumer goods. Senate Republicans offered the proposal Wednesday during negotiations with House members on tax issues. House and Senate Republicans disagree over how much the state's 6.3 percent sales tax should drop in July. It's set to decline to 5.7 percent, but Governor Sam Brownback and Senate GOP leaders have said allowing it to drop much will cause budget problems and prevent Kansas from cutting income taxes. In negotiations, GOP senators proposed keeping the sales tax at 6.25 percent, while the House's plan was 6 percent. As a compromise, Republican senators suggested dropping the sales tax on groceries to 5.7 percent while keeping the tax on other items at 6.25 percent.

**This story has been updated. Please see above. 

Kansas House GOP Won't Move More on Sales Tax

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators have resumed negotiations on tax issues, but House Republicans aren't budging more on adjusting the state's sales tax. Wednesday's meeting of House and Senate negotiators comes after senators proposed trimming the 6.3 percent sales tax to 6.25 percent in July. The House had suggested lowering it to 6 percent. House Republicans stuck with that position. The tax is scheduled by law to drop to 5.7 percent on July 1. But Governor Sam Brownback proposed keeping it at 6.3 percent to stabilize the budget while Kansas pursues more cuts in personal income taxes after massive reductions enacted last year. The Senate approved Brownback's plan earlier this year. The House wanted to let the sales tax drop as planned but modified its stance in earlier negotiations.

**this story has been updated. Please see above. 

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