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Headlines for Thursday, February 8, 2024

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Emily Fisher

Kansas Lawmakers Get a 93% Pay Raise Next Year

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP/KPR) — Kansas is set to nearly double state legislators' pay at the start of next year. That will make their compensation better than it is for their counterparts in a majority of states. The increase is nearly $28,000 a year for rank-and-file legislators. That boosts their total compensation from $30,000 to nearly $58,000. That's an increase of 93%. The pay increase appeared to have bipartisan support. But lawmakers never voted directly on it. They instead set up a bipartisan pay commission last year. Its proposal was set to take effect unless both legislative chambers passed a resolution rejecting it by Wednesday. The raise will make their compensation better than it is for their counterparts in a majority of states, including more populous ones like Georgia and Texas.

Legislative leaders get additional payments because of their duties, and the House speaker and Senate president are set to make more than $85,000 a year. That up from $44,000.

An effort to force a debate in the Senate failed last week, and there was no such move in the House. Some Kansas legislators have complained for years that their annual compensation of $30,000 isn't enough to live on year-round, while their duties as lawmakers cut into outside work or even prevent them from holding down other jobs. Supporters of the pay increase say it is likely to make the Legislature more diverse when it's in danger of becoming mostly retirees and wealthy people. "You might get a few more females," said state Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Kansas City-area Democrat. "You might get a few more minorities. You might get a few more younger people."

Alaska lawmakers' salaries rose by 67% at the start of this year, from $50,400 to $84,000, also because legislators let a proposal from a pay commission stand. New Jersey legislators will see their pay increase in 2026, also by 67%, from $49,000 to $82,000. New York lawmakers received a 29% raise at the start of 2023, making their pay the highest in the nation at $142,000 a year.

Most states pay a salary and give their lawmakers extra money each day to cover expenses in session, according to National Conference of State Legislatures data. New Hampshire's salary is $100 a year — the same as it was in 1889, while New Mexico pays $202 to cover lawmakers' expenses in session but no salary.

When Kansas became a state in 1861, its constitution said lawmakers were to receive $3 a day in session, up to $150. They didn't get a raise for nearly 90 years, with voters rejecting five proposals before approving pay of $12 a day in 1948. In 1962, voters said lawmakers' pay could be set by state law.

The new figure, nearly $58,000, includes both a salary and daily, in-session payments to cover expenses such as meals and housing. "I think it's fair," said House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican. "I think that the commission did, really, a pretty good job." Commission members argued that their sizeable pay increase represented catching lawmakers' compensation up to several decades' worth of inflation. However, the proposal did draw at least a few objections.

Senator Rob Olson, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, tried and failed last week to pull an anti-pay raise resolution out of the Senate budget committee so senators could debate it on the floor. The effort fell short because a dozen of the 40 senators passed.

Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, saw opposition to the pay raise as political grandstanding. "It's just kind of political theater," he said after last week's vote.

The Senate budget committee did review the pay proposal Tuesday during a short hearing. Nicholas Reinecker, a central Kansas restaurant owner who makes seven to 10 trips to Topeka a year to advocate for legalizing cannabis, had to interrupt the its adjournment — after no action — to get his opposition on record. He said he wants Kansas to keep its "citizen" Legislature, adding that when lawmakers take their oaths of office, they promise to "sacrifice for God, family and country." "I'm sorry, it's not supposed to be a job," he told the committee, predicting that the big pay raise could lead to "entanglements" with professional lobbyists.

Senator Rob Olson said he doubts lawmakers' constituents support such a big pay raise and said they should have the courage to debate it and vote on it. And Rep. Ken Corbet, a Topeka Republican who operates a hunting lodge, said that in most businesses, the boss sets the pay, not the employees. And his boss — the taxpayers — haven't told him a pay raise is OK with them, he said. He had considered proposing his own anti-raise resolution, but, "Apparently, there was not an appetite for that."


Kansas Attorney General Targets School Districts over Transgender Student Policies

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS) – Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach called out several Kansas school districts Thursday for their policies on transgender students. The Kansas News Service reports that Kobach says some districts allow employees to hide from parents the fact that a student is using a different name or pronoun at school. Kobach says he notified six districts that their policies violate parents’ rights, and he attacked the practice as “woke gender ideology.” He says officials in Maize and Belle Plaine amended their policies. Four other districts — Kansas City, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Topeka — responded to the attorney general’s inquiry but have not changed their guidelines. Shawnee Mission Superintendent Michelle Hubbard said in a letter to Kobach that schools develop plans through discussions with students and their parents.


Legislature Considering Bill to Stop State Appropriation of Federal Funds from Foster Children

UNDATED (KNS) – A bill in Kansas would stop the state from using foster children’s federal benefits to reimburse the Department for Children and Families for the child’s care. The Kansas News Service reports that the state would instead put the money in a savings account for the child. Supporters of the bill say Kansas has taken federal benefits from foster children without their knowledge, even though it rightfully belongs to them. But lawmakers questioned if it is fair to stop the state from collecting the federal funding on behalf of a child in its care. The funds are meant to be used for a child’s food, shelter and clothing. Republican Representative Paul Waggoner says that is what the state provides. “Is it that much of a stretch that the money it is going to their daily needs, it's just going as it would be to the state of Kansas?” Waggoner asked. State researchers estimate the bill would cost the state about $8.5 million of federal funding each year.


Labor Unions, Business Groups Endorse Bill to Reform Worker's Compensation in Kansas

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR/KNS) – Kansas labor unions and business groups are endorsing a bill to reform worker’s compensation in the state. The Kansas News Service reports that business and labor groups met through the summer to work on a deal to improve the system for both workers and employers. The bill would increase caps on compensation for injured workers, tie those caps to inflation starting in 2027, and add some cost-saving measures for employers. The Senate Commerce Committee recommended the legislation be passed. It now awaits action in the Senate. Lobbying groups like the Kansas Chamber and the Kansas AFL-CIO support the bill.


Number of Monarch Butterflies Drops in Recent Key Population Count

UNDATED (KNS) – Butterfly lovers may have a harder time spotting monarchs this year in Kansas. Scientists say the size of the overwintering monarch population in Mexico is the second-smallest on record. There appear to be less than half as many butterflies as last winter. Kristen Baum directs Monarch Watch at the Kansas Biological Survey and Center for Ecological Research. She says if this year brings good rainfall that boosts plant blooms, it will help the population grow: “The thought is the population will rebound...but it's going to take time and it really depends on all those other conditions.” The butterflies face threats such as habitat loss and insecticides. But Monarch Watch experts say drought delivered an extra blow last fall – making it hard for the butterflies to find enough nectar during migration. (Read more.)


Kansas Legislature Considers Banning Smoking in State-Owned Casinos

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS) – Casino employees are asking Kansas lawmakers to pass a bill banning smoking in their workplaces. The Kansas News Service reports that lawmakers heard testimony on the bill Wednesday. Kansas casino worker Joe Hafley supports a smoking ban because he claims secondhand smoke has contributed to his chronic lung disease. “I am doing this because I have a wife and a son who I want to be there for for a very long time,” he said. But casino operators fiercely oppose a ban. Kevin Fowler, an attorney for Kansas Crossing Casino said it would hurt business and reduce tax revenue. He testified that “...our clients are interested in generating revenue — not only for their shareholders, but also for the state of Kansas. That is why we are in business.” He says Kansas could lose customers to casinos in Oklahoma and Missouri, which allow smoking. Nebraska and Colorado have banned casino smoking.


Kansas Lawmakers Consider Plan to Strip More School Districts of Accreditation

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS) – More Kansas schools could lose their accreditation under a plan being considered by state lawmakers. The Kansas News Service reports that a bill endorsed by the Kansas Policy Institute would strip school districts of their accreditation if they don’t comply with state laws. The conservative group thinks the state’s system of accrediting districts lets too many schools operate without showing progress in student test scores. State Board of Education member Ann Mah opposes the measure. She says the board works with districts on improvement plans, adding that “...the Legislature should not create a private right of action for anyone who just simply doesn’t agree with us. We get elected to make those decisions, as you do.” Some opponents say the bill is part of a campaign against the teaching of race and diversity in schools.


KBI: Teacher Arrested and Charged with Sex Crimes

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) – The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) has arrested a Kansas teacher for allegedly committing sex crimes. On Tuesday evening, KBI agents arrested 38-year-old Brian Stuckenschmidt, of Topeka, on a warrant for rape and aggravated criminal sodomy. In May of 2023, the KBI initiated an investigation after a former student reported incidents that took place in 2018 when Stuckenschmidt was her music teacher in Johnson City, in western Kansas. Stuckenschmidt is currently employed at a Topeka school, but was placed on administrative leave last year when KBI agents brought the investigation to the attention of school officials. Following the arrest, Stuckenschmidt was booked into the Shawnee County Department of Corrections.


Kansas House Adopts Resolution Asking Governor to Send National Guard to Texas Border

TOPEKA, Kan. (Kansas Reflector) — The Kansas House has adopted a non-binding resolution calling on Governor Laura Kelly to send the Kansas National Guard and law enforcement officers to the southern border to help Texas Governor Greg Abbott stem the tide of illegal immigration. The Kansas Reflector reports that House Resolution 6035 characterized the influx of millions of migrants across the border as an invasion.

Representative Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican, said the resolution sponsored by more than 60 House members made clear the federal government has failed to protect southern border states in violation of the U.S. Constitution. “Let us make no mistake, the state of Texas and all the states on our southern border with Mexico are being invaded,” Proctor said. “It’s not just those from Mexico looking for a better life. It’s people from all over the world, including military-age males from China and the Middle East.”

Democratic Representative John Carmichael, of Wichita, said the resolution was unnecessary because the U.S. Senate was working on a bipartisan bill to increase border security. “We do not need to pass this resolution because it is the responsibility of the United States Congress and the president to protect our borders,” Carmichael said.


60 Years Ago this Week, the Beatles Appeared on Ed Sullivan

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KPR) - Sixty years ago this week, four young musicians from England arrived in New York City to appear on a popular TV program. The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan's show on February 9th, 1964. Even though it was nearly halfway through the decade, many cultural historians mark that TV appearance as a turning point - the day the 1950s became “The Sixties.” TV and radio journalist Bob Kealing is the author of "Good Day Sunshine State: How The Beatles Rocked Florida." Kealing, a Kansas City native and graduate of the KU School of Journalism, told Kansas Public Radio about an odd Kansas connection to the Beatles. Find out what it is by listening to Tom Parkinson's report about the impact of the Fab Four on America, 60 years ago.


Kansas Legislature Examines Bill to Require Age Verification for Some Internet Sites

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) – A proposal at the Statehouse would require people in Kansas to verify their age before accessing adult content on the internet. The Kansas News Service reports that websites that mainly host sexual content would have to verify their users are at least 18, most likely through a government ID or other personal documentation. Critics say the measure could violate users’ internet privacy and free speech. But proponents say the measure would protect minors from age-inappropriate material. Joseph Kohm with Family Policy Alliance told legislators that “...not only does pornography harm children’s wellbeing. There is also a strong correlation between pornography, human trafficking, and sexual abuse.” The bill would create a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for websites that violate its provisions. Similar bills have become law in Louisiana and Utah in recent years.


KC Man, Convicted More than 50 Times, Sentenced to Prison

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - A judge has sentenced a Kansas City man to seven years in prison for shoplifting less than $400 worth of merchandise. Prosecutors in Platte County, Missouri, say the man’s criminal history of stealing is the reason behind the seemingly stiff prison sentence. KCTV reports that William M. Betts has been convicted more than 50 times since 1991. More than two dozen of those convictions were for stealing. His latest arrest happened in January of last year.


Emmett Till Exhibit Opens Friday at KU

UNDATED (KCUR) – The killing of Emmett Till is explored in a University of Kansas exhibit starting Friday. KCUR reports that the traveling show “Let The World See” details the life and murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till, lynched in 1955 by white vigilantes for allegedly “whistling” at a white woman. Sydney Pursel helped curate the exhibit and says it's useful for having deeper conversations around race and injustice. “We have students from all walks of life that come through our building, but they might not go attend a Black Lives Matter protest. So it's a way that we can reach broader audiences and use art as a way to teach these histories and these stories,” Pursel said. A companion exhibit uses contemporary Black art to connect Till’s story to that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, killed by a Florida neighborhood watchman in 2012. The exhibition opens at the Spencer Museum of Art on the KU campus Friday, and runs through May 19th.


Chiefs Fans Undeterred by Steep Prices, Limited Availability of Super Bowl Tickets

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCUR) – Kansas City Chiefs fans are paying steep prices for seats at this year’s Super Bowl. KCUR reports that Kansas City, Missouri resident, George Medina, has been a season ticket holder since Patrick Mahomes joined the team. He attended both the 2020 and 2023 Super Bowls. Medina and his daughters have their flights and hotels booked in Las Vegas -- they’re only missing one thing. “This year’s gonna be a little harder. We don’t have tickets yet," Medina said, adding that "...we’re planning on leaving Friday morning, and you know, we’re gonna go regardless. And so, we’re going to have a good time. It’s Las Vegas and we’re going to make the best of it."
Medina is confident he’ll be able to score tickets through friends-of-friends. The average Super Bowl ticket is currently going for ninety-five hundred dollars according to the website TicketIQ.


Former Jayhawk Basketball Star Scot Pollard Waits in Hospital for Heart Transplant

BOSTON (AP) — At 6-foot-11, Scot Pollard’s size helped him play more than a decade in the NBA, earning him a championship ring with the 2008 Boston Celtics. Now it may be killing him.

Pollard needs a heart transplant, an already dire predicament that is made more difficult by the fact so few donors can provide him with a pump big and strong enough to supply blood to his extra large body. He was admitted to intensive care at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Tuesday, and he will wait there until a donor surfaces who was big enough to be a match. “I'm staying here until I get a heart,” he said in a text message to The Associated Press on Wednesday night. “My heart got weaker. (Doctors) agree this is my best shot at getting a heart quicker.”

At nearly 7 feet tall and with a playing weight of 260 pounds, Pollard's size rules out most potential donors for a heart to replace the one that — due to a genetic condition that was likely triggered by a virus he contracted in 2021 — has been beating an extra 10,000 times per day. Half of his siblings have the same condition — as did his father, who died at 54, when Scot was 16. “That was an immediate wake-up call," Pollard said in a recent telephone interview. "You don’t see a lot of old (7-) footers walking around. So I’ve known that my whole life, just because I had that seared into my brain as a 16-year-old, that -- yeah, being tall is great, but I’m not going to see 80.”

A 1997 first-round draft pick after helping the University of Kansas reach the NCAA Sweet 16 in four straight seasons, Pollard was a useful big man off the bench for much of an NBA career that stretched over 11 years and five teams. He played 55 seconds in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ trip to the NBA Finals in 2007, and won it all the following year with the Celtics despite a season-ending ankle injury in February.

Pollard retired after that season, then dabbled in broadcasting and acting. He was a contestant on the 32nd season of “Survivor,” where he was voted out on Day 27 with eight castaways remaining.

Although Pollard, 48, has been aware of the condition at least since his father died in the 1990s, it wasn’t until he got sick three years ago that it began to affect his quality of life. “It feels like I’m walking uphill all the time,” he said on the telephone, when he warned a reporter that he might need to cut it short if he got tired.

Pollard tried medication, and has had three ablations — procedures to try to break up the signals causing the irregular heartbeats. A pacemaker implanted about a year go only gets to about half of the problem. “They all agree that more ablations isn’t going to fix this, more medication isn’t going to fix that,” Pollard said. “We need a transplant.”

Patients in need of an organ transplant have to navigate a labyrinthine system that attempts to fairly match the donated organs with the recipients in need. The matching process takes the health of the patient into account, all with the goal of maximizing the benefit of the limited organs available. “It’s out of my hands. It’s not even in the doctor’s hands,” Pollard said. “It’s up to the donor networks.”

To maximize his chances, Pollard was advised to register at as many transplant centers as possible — “it's increasing my odds at the casino by going to as many casinos at the same time as possible,” he said. But: He must be able to get there within four hours; the need to return for post-operative visits also make it difficult to get treated far from home.

Pollard listed himself at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in his hometown of Carmel, Indiana, and last week went through testing at the University of Chicago. He traveled this week to Vanderbilt, which performed more heart transplants last year than anyone else in the country. Pollard arrived on Sunday; on Tuesday, doctors admitted him to the I.C.U.

There, Pollard will wait for a new heart – one that is healthy enough to give him a chance, and big enough to fit his oversized frame. He had been living as Status 4 — for those who are in stable condition — but now that he is hospitalized he could be eligible for Status 2, the second-highest priority. "They can’t predict, but they are confident I’ll get a heart in weeks not months,” he texted.

Pollard acknowledged it's strange to be hoping for a donor to surface, which is essentially rooting for someone to die. “The fact is, that person's going to end up saving someone else's life. They're going to be a hero,” he said. “That's how I look at it. I understand what has to happen for me to get what I need. So it's a real hard mix of emotions.”

Until then, Pollard waits with the knowledge that the same genetic quirk that helped him a basketball star — so far, the defining achievement of his life — threatens to be a defining factor in his death.

It's something he's known since his father died. “I’ve thought about that my entire life,” he said. "I'm from a family of giants. I'm the youngest of six and I have three brothers that are taller than me. And people are always like, ‘Oh, man, I wish I had your height.’ Yeah? Let’s go sit on an airplane together and see how much you want to be this tall. “It's not like being tall is a curse. It’s not. It’s still a blessing. But, I have known my entire life that there’s a good chance I wasn’t going to get old,” he said. “And so it gives you a different perspective on how you live your life and how you treat people and all that kind of stuff.”


As Long School Funding Lawsuit Ends in Kansas, Some Fear Lawmakers Will Backslide on Funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' highest court has closed out a nearly 13-year-old lawsuit that repeatedly forced the Republican-controlled Legislature to boost funding for public schools. A state Supreme Court order on Tuesday said that legislators have fulfilled promises to provide annual increases in aid to the state's 286 local school districts as outlined in a 2019 law. The state expects to provide $4.9 billion in aid to those districts during the current school year. That's 39% more than the $3.5 billion for the 2013-14 school district. But Democrats predicted Wednesday that GOP colleagues soon would be trying to backslide on lawmakers' promises. Key Republicans rejected that idea.

But closing the case gives the Legislature more leeway on school funding issues in the short term. Educators who feel legislators aren't providing enough money or distributing it fairly enough were able to take their complaints directly to the state Supreme Court while the case was open. Kansas has been in and out of lawsuits over public schools for 35 years, and legislators backtracked on their promises after two earlier rounds of litigation when the state economy faltered and the budget became tight. In recent years, conservative Republicans have pushed to set aside state education dollars for parents so that they can pay for private schooling for their children. "If history tells us anything, I predict it'll take all of five seconds for the other side to exploit this trust from the court," the top Democrat in the Kansas House, Rep. Vic Miller, said in an emailed statement.

The court's order Tuesday said that one justice, Eric Rosen, would have kept the case open given "the legislative history of school funding." Leah Fliter, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said many local school board members would be more comfortable if the Supreme Court had opted to keep the case open for a few more years.

The court's majority also rejected a request from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to file a "friend of the court" brief on whether the case should be closed. She is not a party to the lawsuit. . Now they would have to file a new lawsuit, if they chose to do so, which would take at least several years to resolve.

In her brief, Kelly argued that lawmakers had "achieved the bare minimum" and that "compliance once is not sufficient."

After the court acted Tuesday, Kelly said in a statement: "The Legislature must not take this ruling as license to cut funding from our public schools and crush an entire generation of Kansas students."

Top Republicans rejected the idea that they're ready to backtrack on funding. House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said lawmakers have made education a priority "by fully funding schools."

State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said: "We as a Legislature have kept our word."

The Supreme Court closed the lawsuit at the request of state Attorney General Kris Kobach. A conservative Republican, Kobach previously has argued that the court's orders on education funding improperly encroached on the Legislature's power to make those decisions under the state constitution. Kobach said Wednesday that that the state constitution anticipates that the Legislature will decide spending issues, with the Supreme Court stepping in only over "a constitutional violation." "The constitution doesn't contemplate that the court is involved at all stages, and this just brings us back to our normal constitutional framework," Kobach said of Tuesday's decision.

The Supreme Court closed a previous lawsuit in 2006 based on laws promising increased spending on schools, but within a few years, educators said lawmakers were failing in their duty under the state constitution to provide an adequate education for every K-12 student.

Four school districts sued the state in 2010, and the Supreme Court issued seven rulings from 2010 to 2019. The first six told lawmakers that they needed to increase spending or distribute the money more fairly or both. Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the four districts, said they will remain "watchful" with the case closed. "Everybody remains optimistic," he said.


This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers. Our headlines are generally published by 10 am weekdays and are updated through 7 pm. This ad-free news summary is made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.