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Headlines for Friday, December 19, 2014

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Pension Move Described as 1-Time Kansas Budget Fix 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Governor Sam Brownback's budget director says Brownback doesn't plan to divert funds from the state's public pension system again to help close budget shortfalls. Budget Director Shawn Sullivan told a legislative committee Friday that the diversion of nearly $41 million from the pension system for teachers and government workers to general government programs is a one-time event. The Republican governor diverted the money to help close a projected $279 million shortfall in the current budget. The state also faces a $436 million gap in its budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. The diversion sparked bipartisan criticism because the pension system's benefits are only 60 percent funded through 2033. A 2012 law boosted contributions by both the state and workers to ensure that the system becomes fully funded.


Brownback Aides Seek Study of Big Kansas Pension Changes 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top aides to Republican Governor Sam Brownback are urging legislators to study major changes in the pension system for teachers and government workers that include privatizing it. Budget Director Shawn Sullivan and Secretary of Administration Jim Clark outlined potential ideas for a study during a meeting a joint study committee on pensions.

Brownback said last week that he is working on proposals to improve the long-term financial health of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. His comments followed bipartisan criticism of his decision to divert nearly $41 million from KPERS to general government programs to help close a projected shortfall in the current budget. Sullivan and Clark urged legislators to launch a study of converting the state's long-term pension obligations into annuities managed by private companies.


House Speaker Changes Committee Leadership


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick has replaced the leaders of two key committees and filled vacancies in two other chairmanships.  Merrick spokeswoman Rachel Whitten confirmed yesterday (THU) that Representative Ron Ryckman Junior of Olathe will be chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Ryckman replaces Representative Gene Suellentrop of Wichita.  Merrick appointed Representative Ron Highland of Wamego as Education Committee chairman. He replaces Representative Kasha Kelley of Arkansas City. Whitten declined to discuss the reasons behind the changes.  There are also new chairs of the Taxation Committee and Judiciary Committee.  Merrick appointed Representative Marvin Kleeb of Overland Park and John Barker of Abilene to take over those leadership positions.  The previous chairmen did not seek re-election this year. All of the new chairmen are Republicans, in keeping the GOP's 97-to-28 majority in the House.


Regents Want Proposed Funding Model Talks Delayed 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Board of Regents says it won't recommend a proposed funding mechanism that would tie college budgets to specific performance-based benchmarks. Instead, the board said it would recommend the Legislature delay considering any kind of performance-based budgeting model until the state's financial condition turns around. It wants the model to be used as an incentive to qualify for additional funding, above what schools receive in their base budgets. The Lawrence Journal-World reports state lawmakers had urged the board in August to develop a metrics model that could be considered by the Legislature in its next session. A task force appointed to create a proposal offered its plan to the regents Thursday. It called for setting goals for each university and offering payments based on targets like the number of awarded certificates and degrees.


Westar Drops Fee for Credit Payments

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ The largest electric company in Kansas says it is no longer charging an almost three-dollar fee to customers who use credit or debit cards to pay their monthly bills.  Topeka-based Westar Energy Inc. announced yesterday (THURS) that it had abolished the charge.  Westar Vice President Jeff Beasley said the utility has a team focusing on finding ways to make it easier for consumers to do business with the company.  The company noted that earlier this year it made its website friendly to mobile devices and introduced text and email updates to customers who wanted to know about power outages.  Westar supplies electricity to nearly 700-thousand customers.


Judge Finds Kansas Man Guilty in DUI Case

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — A judge has found a Lawrence man guilty in a drunken driving accident that caused a University of Kansas student's legs to be amputated. The Lawrence Journal-World reports Judge Kay Huff on Thursday found Julian Kuszmaul guilty of second-offense DUI, refusing to submit to an alcohol test and marijuana possession. Kuszmaul's SUV pinned 18-year-old Colby Liston in August 2012. Linston's legs were amputated above the knee. Huff in October 2013 suppressed a blood test, and ruled officers should have obtained a search warrant before Kuszmaul's blood was drawn. The test results showed Kuszmaul's blood alcohol at the time of the accident was 0.25, more than three times the legal limit. Huff said Thursday that a chemical test wasn't necessary to establish guilt of a DUI. Sentencing is scheduled for January 22.


Trial Date Set for Lawrence Murder

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) _ A 20-year-old Lawrence woman charged with killing her roommate will go on trial in March.  Douglas County District Judge Paula Martin set the new trial date yesterday (THU) for Sarah Gonzales McLinn, charged with first-degree murder in the January death 52-year-old Harold Sasko. Her trial was scheduled for January 5 but attorneys sought the delay.  Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson is seeking a Hard 50 sentence for McLinn.  McLinn remains in the Douglas County Jail on a $1 million bond.  


Troubled Salina Water Service Fined by KCC

SALINA, Kan. (AP) — A Salina water utility with long-running problems has been fined $1,000 and the Kansas Corporation Commission is suggesting higher fines will be coming in the future. The KCC levied the fine in July against Howison Heights and ordered the utility to take five steps to improve water quality. The KCC staff said Thursday most of the improvements have not been made. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports Howison customers have complained of unpleasant water odor and inconsistent pressure and the state has issued boil orders because of chlorination problems. Commissioners Jay Emler urged the KCC staff to consider a larger fine — up to $25,000 — if Howison doesn't improve the water system within 45 days as ordered. Howison Heights serves about 60 customers in suburban Salina.


Wichita Man Pleads Guilty in Pharmacy Robbery 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Wichita man has pleaded guilty to stealing prescription drugs during an armed robbery. Thirty-four-year-old Ryan Schmidt on Thursday admitted to commercial robbery and brandishing a firearm. He says he used a gun when he ordered a Gessler's Drug Store employee to give him medication in September. Schmidt took seven bottles of hydrocodone and three bottles of promethazine. Police say he led officers on a high-speed chase before hitting a utility pole and another vehicle. Schmidt faces between 14 and 25 years in federal prison when he is sentenced in March.


Judge Sets February Trial Date in Odd Kansas ID Theft Case 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A judge has set a trial date in the case of a Mexican man accused of legally changing a U.S. citizen's name to his own. U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren on Thursday scheduled the trial of Ramon Perez-Rivera and his wife, Antonia Vargas-Ortega, for February 17. The husband's attorney hasn't commented, and the wife's attorney has said Vargas-Ortega was unaware of any issues. Prosecutors say Perez-Rivera assumed a false identity to obtain food stamps and Medicaid, obtain a U.S. passport and driver's license, and register to vote. The indictment alleges he fraudulently convinced a California court to unwittingly change the legal name of the U.S. citizen whose identity he had stolen. Prosecutors say he also changed the victim's California birth record to his own name.


2 Women Hurt When Car Crashes into Wichita Home 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A suspected drunken driver plows into the living room of a west Wichita home and seriously injures the 93-year-old resident and a 69-year-old woman visiting her. The Wichita Eagle reports the crash happened at 9:55 pm Thursday. Police Lieutenant Joe Schroeder says both women suffered multiple injuries and remained at a hospital on Friday. Schroeder says a 33-year-old man driving an Acura crashed through the wall as the women were seated in the living room of the home. The man was booked into jail on suspicion of multiple counts, including driving under the influence and aggravated battery.


Kansas Teenager Pleads Guilty in Infant Attack 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Jackson County (Kansas) teenager has pleaded guilty to severely beating an infant. WIBW-TV reports 18-year-old Koylen McKinney pleaded guilty Thursday to aggravated battery, abuse of a child and aggravated endangerment of a child. McKinney was arrested in April after medics found the 7-month-old boy unresponsive at a Holton apartment complex. The infant was in a medically induced coma following the attack. He was later released from the hospital. McKinney was 17 years old at the time of the incident but was tried as an adult. His relationship with the boy is unclear. He faces more than 14 years in prison when he is sentenced.


Trial Moved for Man Accused of Shooting Family 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The trial for a 39-year-old Wichita man accused of trying to kill his family has been delayed until March at the request of the man's attorney. The Wichita Eagle reports that Pettix McMillan is charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder for the March 24 shootings of his 36-year-old wife and two sons, ages 5 and 13. Prosecutors say the woman and older boy were shot in the torso in their west Wichita home, while the younger boy was shot in the head. All three survived. McMillan's trial had been scheduled to begin Monday in Sedgwick County District Court but now is set for March 30. McMillan worked for a trucking company and has been found competent to stand trial. He remains in custody on $1 million bond.


Police: Kansas Man, 71, Injured in Hit-and-Run 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita police say a 71-year-old man is in critical condition after being struck by a distracted driver who left him on the side of the road. The Wichita Eagle reports that the unidentified victim was being treated at the Wesley Medical Center on Thursday. Sergeant Stephen Patton says the man was walking Wednesday when he was struck from behind by a 29-year-old woman, who drove off. He says the woman's husband retraced her route after she told him she hit something. Patton says the husband found the man lying next to the road less than a mile from their home. He says the man was likely lying there for up to 30 minutes. The driver tells police she was distracted by something inside her vehicle. No charges have been reported.


Police: Naked Kansas Woman Kicks Officer 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita police have arrested a woman who they say kicked an officer after they found her naked in the snow. A witness called 911 shortly before midnight Wednesday to report an unclothed woman trying to break into her car. Temperatures were in the low 30s. Police say the 53-year-old suspect tried to assault officers when they arrived. They say she kicked an officer in the leg while being placed in the patrol car. The officer wasn't injured. The woman's identity hasn't been released. She is being held at the Sedgwick County Jail and faces a charge of battery of a law enforcement officer.


Gold Tooth Dropped into Missouri Donation Kettle

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Salvation Army spokesman says someone has dropped a gold tooth into a holiday collection kettle. Spokesman Rick Carroll said Thursday that he's found diamond rings, silver bars and four-leaf clovers but has never heard of a tooth donation. He says the item could be worth $100 depending on the amount of gold it contains. Kansas City's Red Kettle Campaign began November 7 and is currently running about $50,000 behind where it was a year ago. Carroll says he at first considered the donation to be gross, but now thinks it's a nice gesture. He worries that the donation might have been unintentional and he is temporarily hanging onto the tooth in case someone claims it.


School Mentoring Group Might Be Coming to KC 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Several Kansas City leaders are working to bring a national school mentoring program to the struggling Kansas City district. Organizations such as the Kauffman Foundation, the Kansas City Public Schools and the mayor's office said at a rally this week that the City Year AmeriCorps could help the district's struggling students. The Kansas City Star reports that the program, which started in the Boston public schools in 1988, trains people 17 to 24 years old to serve as tutors and mentors. In return, they earn about $12,500 a year and a chance for college tuition vouchers and scholarships. Several Kansas City leaders visited Orlando, Florida, in November to see the program in action. Superintendent Steven Green says everyone was impressed.


Report: Banks Stronger, Set to Thrive

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) _ A new report by the University of Kansas Center for Banking Excellence has determined that the state of banking in Kansas is greatly improved and the industry positioned to thrive despite new regulatory standards.  The Lawrence Journal-World reports the research examines the current financial condition of commercial banks, trends over the past decade and the industry's recovery from the financial crisis.  Robert DeYoung, the report's author, says conditions for banks in the coming years will feel more like normal. His forecast calls for gradual growth in lending and profitability as banks continue their traditional focus on helping local businesses and households meet their financial needs.


Baby Penguins Hatched at Kansas City Zoo 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Zoo is celebrating the birth of two baby penguins. The zoo says the Gentoo chicks hatched earlier in the week and are being nourished on regurgitated herring and trout at the Helzberg Penguin Plaza. They say one of the siblings is being cared for by its biological parents and the other is in the care of foster parents. Spokeswoman Julie Neemeyer tells the Kansas City Star it's common for only one chick to survive in the wild, which is why one of the babies was entrusted to another pair of penguins. Zoo officials say the chicks are dependent on their parents for up to three months. They say a third penguin egg is expected to hatch by the end of the year.


Prosecutor Named in KC Councilman Case

PLATTE CITY, Mo. (AP) _ A special prosecutor has been appointed in the case against Kansas City Councilman Michael Brooks.   Brooks is accused of choking his legislative aide in his council office. Kansas City police have finished their investigation into the allegations; the prosecutor will determine whether charges will be filed.  Brooks has denied the allegations but says he will resign, effective January 2.


Plunging Oil Prices Hit Independent Operators


 WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ Plunging crude prices are hitting oil producers especially hard in Kansas. That is because the oil industry in the state is dominated by small, independent operators who depend heavily on the cash flow from producing wells to pay to drill new ones.  The Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association says the low prices are causing many companies to re-evaluate their drilling plans.  Analysts say the growth in new drilling across the country will slow as drillers avoid rock that is either not well understood or known to be unproductive. At high oil prices, that drilling can be profitable but at low oil prices the drilling is either too risky or unprofitable. That is particularly true in Kansas, where the majority of oil wells are low-producing.


Death Penalty Sought in Jewish Site Shootings


 OLATHE, Kan. (AP) _ A Kansas prosecutor will seek the death penalty for a white supremacist who is charged with killing three people at two Jewish sites in suburban Kansas City.  Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe announced his intention yesterday (THU) at a hearing where 74-year-old Frazier Glenn Miller of Aurora, Missouri was ruled competent to stand trial. Miller is charged in the April 13th shooting deaths of 69-year-old Doctor William Corporon, 14-year-old Reat Griffin Underwood and 53-year-old Terri LaManno. After a judge scheduled a preliminary hearing in March, Miller protested the hearing date, shouting "What about my speedy trial?" A Kansas judge last month ordered Miller to undergo a mental evaluation when his attorneys expressed concern about his ability to help with his defense.


Hospital Sues Salina over Vacant Buildings

SALINA, Kan. (AP) _ Salina Regional Health Center is suing the city of Salina in a dispute over whether to demolish a closed hospital and other buildings.  The hospital filed the lawsuit Wednesday, saying the city is violating its property rights by denying a demolition permit for the former St. John's Hospital.  Saint John's Hospital and other structures on what is generally called the Penn Campus have been vacant since 2011. Salina Regional began trying to sell, lease or repurpose the campus in 2002 but said no developers could find a financially viable use for the campus.  


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