Headlines for Thursday, February 26, 2015
Kansas Legislature's Deadline Prompts Long Day of Debates
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas lawmakers are expecting a long day of debating bills on topics that include changing local elections because a key deadline is looming. The Senate's agenda for Thursday was especially crowded ahead of the Legislature's annual "turnaround" deadline. Most bills must clear their chamber of origin by Friday to be considered further before lawmakers wrap up their annual session in May. Budget and tax measures are exempt from the deadline, but there are still plenty of other bills for lawmakers to discuss.
Kansas Senate Advances Plan to Issue $1B in Pension Bonds
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Senate has given first-round approval to a proposal described by supporters as refinancing part of the long-term debt facing the pension system for teachers and government workers. The bill advanced Thursday would authorize $1 billion in bonds to shore up the financial health of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. Senators expected to take a final vote late in the day. The pension system projects a $9.8 billion shortfall in funding for retirees' benefits through June 2033. Lawmakers have moved in recent years to close the gap, but the bill would give KPERS an infusion of funds quickly. The measure anticipates the state taking 10 years longer, until 2043, to close the shortfall while reducing the state's annual costs. Critics questioned whether such a move is prudent.
Kansas Senate Advances Bill to Change Local Elections
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Senate has given first-round approval to a bill that would move city and local school board elections from the spring to the fall of odd-numbered years. Senators advanced the bill on a voice vote and expected to take final action Thursday night. Supporters of the measure argue that it will increase turnout in local elections because people are used to voting in November. City and school board elections currently are held in April, with primaries in late February or early March. Turnout is often low. But critics of the bill said there's no compelling reason for a change and that it will cause administrative problems for local officials. Also, city elections must be nonpartisan now, and the bill would allow cities to make them partisan.
Kansas Panel Considers Holding 2016 Presidential Primaries
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas lawmakers are pushing back against a proposal from Secretary of State Kris Kobach that would cancel the state's 2016 presidential primary elections. The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee held a hearing on the bill Wednesday. Senator Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican who chairs the committee, says he expected the panel to vote on it. He said the panel will continue to discuss it given the controversy. Senate President and committee member Senator Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, opposed the bill, saying that a primary would draw more attention to the state and allow more voters to participate. Lawmakers have cancelled every state primary since 1992 because of the cost, and Republicans and Democrats have instead held caucuses, which draw substantially fewer participants.
Kansas Senators Question Governor's Rural Opportunity Plan
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Kansas senators have expressed skepticism over the usefulness of Governor Sam Brownback's Rural Opportunity Zones program. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the Republican and Democratic lawmakers are questioning whether the program, which is designed to pull people into the state's rural areas, will actually bolster rural economies. The program, which covers 77 counties that make up a large portion of western and southeastern Kansas, provides incentives like student loan forgiveness and waived income taxes to persuade people to move to rural areas. The Department of Revenue estimates that 330 people will receive income tax waivers for 2014, which will cost the state about $800,000 in revenue. Chris Harris of the Business and Community Development Division of the Kansas Department of Commerce said those individuals will have an economic impact of $44 million in the state.
Kansas House Passes Drunk Driving Laws
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas House approved two bills changing the state's penalties for driving under the influence. The full House voted on the bills Thursday. One measure would increase penalties for drunk drivers who cause bodily harm to others in accidents, and the other would allow convicted drunk drivers to have the offense expunged from their record earlier. Republican Representative John Rubin of Shawnee said he supported sending a strong message by stiffening penalties on drunken drivers who cause harm. Democratic Representative John Carmichael of Wichita said he supported allowing drunk drivers to expunge the offense from their record after five years because it would only apply to their first offense and prevent it from doing excessive harm to their employment opportunities. Both bills now will move to the Senate.
Brownback Names New Policy Director
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Governor Sam Brownback is bringing in a new policy director. Brownback announced Wednesday that Brandon Smith will take over as the governor's policy director next week. Smith is from Olathe and holds law degrees from the University of Kansas and George Washington University. Brownback says Smith brings strong experience at the federal and state level. Smith previously worked as a Kansas legislative intern and law clerk in the state's Third Judicial District. Smith has worked for the conservative think tank the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. since 2011. Smith said in a news release that he is grateful for the opportunity to serve his home state.
Kansas Bill Penalizing Teachers for Obscenity Passes Senate
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Teachers no longer would be exempt from criminal charges for showing students materials deemed to be harmful to minors under a bill passed by the Kansas Senate. The Senate's vote Wednesday was 26-14. Teachers could be charged for any materials thought to be too sexual or too profane for minors under the proposal. Critics say it could cover sex education materials and even some classical literature and would have a chilling effect on educators wary of treading too close to the line. Supporters say the bill would protect children and that teachers should not be allowed to show materials that would draw penalties in other contexts. They also said the fears of opponents are overblown. The bill moves to the House for debate.
Kansas House Delays Vote on Bill Easing Marijuana Penalties
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas lawmakers are delaying action on a bill that would reduce sentences for the first two marijuana possession offenses. The House chose Thursday to return the measure to a panel for further discussion rather than vote on it or discard it. Most bills had to be passed by their chamber of origin by Friday or be tabled for the remainder of the session. The bill would eliminate the possibility that an offender would face prison time until their third marijuana conviction unless they had serious prior convictions. Republican Representative John Rubin of Shawnee said he was disappointed the measure did not pass because it would ease strain on Kansas's overfilling prisons. Kansas prisons already are crowded and are expected to be 7 percent over capacity by 2024.
Kansas House Passes Teacher Collective Bargaining Compromise
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas House has approved a collective bargaining compromise between teachers and school boards. The House passed the compromise bill 109-14 Thursday. School boards and teachers unions can currently bring dozens of issues to the negotiating table, which critics say leads to deadlock. The compromise bill would allow each side of the negotiations to bring five issues that would have to be addressed in addition to pay. The bill's language came as the result of an extensive amendment proposed by Republican Rep. Sue Boldra of Hays Wednesday that gutted its original provisions. The original bill would have allowed non-union teachers to negotiate individually for pay and benefits and school boards would not have been required to extend to them deals reached with the union.
Kansas Senate Wants to Allow Concealed Guns Without Permit
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Senate has approved a bill to allow people to carry concealed guns without requiring them to get a state permit or take training classes. The vote Thursday was 31-7 and sends the measure to the House. The bill is sponsored by 26 of the chamber's 40 members, led by Majority Leader Terry Bruce. A state concealed carry permit costs $132.50, and a person must undergo eight hours of training to get one. Gun-rights groups note Kansas has long allowed the open carrying of weapons without a state permit. The bill's critics say training should be mandated for people carrying concealed weapons. The National Rifle Association says Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming don't require permits to carry concealed anywhere in the state.
Bill Would Prevent Candidates from Taking Names Off Ballot
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas House has approved a bill that would prohibit candidates from withdrawing from an election unless they die. It also would require political parties to name another candidate to fill ballot vacancies. The bill sought by Secretary of State Kris Kobach was given final approval Thursday and now goes to the Senate. The proposal is a response to a controversy last year when Democrat Chad Taylor withdrew from the U.S. Senate race a month before the Democratic primary, leaving only independent candidate Greg Orman to challenge Republican Senator Pat Roberts. The Lawrence Journal-World reported Republican Representative Mark Kahrs of Wichita said during debate Wednesday that similar situations should be prohibited. Democrats argued the law would cause problems when a candidate becomes incapacitated but doesn't die.
Kansas House Panel Rejects Raise in Public Pension Benefits
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas House committee has rejected a bill that would give retired teachers and government workers small increases in their pension benefits. The Pensions and Benefits Committee's vote Wednesday was 7-5 against the measure. Chairman and Republican Representative Steve Johnson of Assaria said the biggest concern was the long-term cost of boosting benefits. The state is working to close a projected $9.8 billion shortfall in funding for benefits promised into 2033. The bill was designed to boost benefits for retirees to help them deal with increases in the cost of living. Increases would have ranged from 0.5 percent to 3 percent. Kansas Coalition of Public Retirees Vice Chairman Ernie Claudel said the vote was disappointing because 70 percent of retirees have not received any adjustments in their benefits.
Osawatomie State Hospital Avoids Losing Federal Funds
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. (AP) — Federal authorities are no longer threatening to end Medicare and Medicaid funding for the Osawatomie State Hospital after work began on $3 million worth safety improvements. The Department of Health and Human Services told the psychiatric facility Monday that it had made sufficient progress and payments that amount to about one-fourth of the hospital's $26 million annual budget would continue. Osawatomie was threatened with the loss of funding after the department inspected the facility in January and found that it was not in compliance with several safety standards to prevent patient injuries and suicides. The hospital has been replacing beds, installing new bathroom fixtures and replacing suspended ceilings. They have also been eliminating items that could be used for hanging or as a weapon.
Farmers Protest Proposal to Hike Ag Land Taxes
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A Republican state lawmaker's proposal that would dramatically increase property taxes on Kansas agricultural land has spawned a strong rural backlash. Farmers fear that pieces of it will pop up in legislation to close a projected state budget shortfall. Republican Senator Jeff Melcher of Leawood argues that agricultural land is valued for tax purposes so far below market values that it's unfair. He also contends the state and local communities are losing millions of dollars they could use to finance public schools and services. But farmers and agriculture groups see huge potential tax increases. The Kansas Department of Revenue estimates the annual state and local property taxes on agricultural land would increase by $890 million. Owners would see an average statewide per-acre increase of 569 percent on irrigated land.
Police: Body Found in Kansas City Well Identified
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas City police say the body found last week in a city-owned well has been identified as a 27-year-old woman, though the cause of her death hasn't been released. Police say Janina Vasquez's body was discovered in a 25-foot well near the Missouri River on February 19. Police said in a news release Thursday that the case still is being investigated, and the local medical examiner hasn't yet made a ruling as to what caused the death. The body was found by Kansas City water department workers, but city officials say the body was in a flood-control well and not one relating to drinking water.
United Airlines Flight Diverted to Wichita Lands Safely
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Officials say a United Airlines flight has landed safely after being diverted to a Wichita airport because of landing gear issues. Airport Police and Fire Capt. Randy Currie says the plane that took off Wednesday night from Denver International Airport had experienced landing gear issues, prompting a request to land at Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. The Bombardier Q-400 aircraft was operated by Republic Airlines and was headed to the Kansas City International Airport in Missouri. A Republic Airlines representative says 67 passengers and a four-member crew were onboard Flight 4912. He says a maintenance crew is investigating the issue. Currie says United Airlines offered to put the passengers in a hotel overnight and the airline service used two buses to shuttle about 30 passengers to Kansas City
Topeka Zoo Bear Dies During Surgery
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Topeka zoo officials say a 20-year-old black bear died during spinal surgery. Zoo director Brendan Wiley says the bear, named Peek, died Wednesday during surgery at Kansas State University's veterinary health center. Peek was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in January and gradually got worse, recently losing the use of her hind legs. Wiley said in a news release that the zoo tried several methods, including stem cell therapy, to help the bear before deciding surgery was the only option. Peek and her sister, Sneak, arrived at the Topeka Zoo in 1996 from Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria, Illinois. The zoo acquired two female, orphaned black bear cubs last year. They have not yet been introduced to Sneak..
Sheriff: Man, 25, Found Dead in Pottawatomie County Jail Cell
WESTMORELAND, Kan. (AP) — A sheriff in northeastern Kansas' Pottawatomie County says foul play isn't suspected in the death of a 25-year-old jail inmate. Sheriff Greg Riat says 25-year-old Andrew J. Brown of Wamego was pronounced dead at a hospital early Wednesday shortly after being found unresponsive in his cell by a jailer. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is handling the case. Specifics about why Brown was jailed were not immediately disclosed. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Missouri Lawmaker Faults District After Boy with Asperger's Beaten
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri lawmaker is criticizing a suburban Kansas City school district after a student with Asperger's syndrome was beaten so severely that he was hospitalized. State Senator Eric Schmitt said Thursday that the school's handling of the February 19 attack on 12-year-old Blake Kitchen of Liberty was "inexcusable." Schmitt said he plans to take the lead in ushering an anti-bullying bill through the state Senate. A spokeswoman for Children's Mercy Hospital says the boy spent four days there and was released Monday. Blake's mother says the boy's injuries include a cracked skull and a fractured jaw. Liberty school district superintendent Jeremy Tucker says the situation is under investigation and the district is cooperating with law enforcement. He says the district has policies addressing hazing, bullying and student discipline.
Big 12 Commissioner Scolds K-State for Post-Game Melee
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby is publicly reprimanding Kansas State for failing to prevent Wildcats fans from pouring onto the court after the school's upset victory over rival Kansas. Bowlsby's admonition Wednesday came the same day Kansas State student Nathan Power was publicly identified as the fan who body-checked Kansas forward Jamari Traylor after the Wildcats' 70-63 victory Monday night. Power has been cited for disorderly conduct. No injuries resulted from the court-storming incident. But Bowlsby says Kansas State failed to ensure the safety and security of the players and fans and he is pressing for policy revisions to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Mike Sweeney Elected to Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Former first baseman Mike Sweeney will become the 26th member of the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame. Sweeney, a five-time All Star when he played with the Royals from 1995 to 2007, was elected in his first ballot appearance, the team announced Wednesday. Sweeney also played for the Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies but he signed a one-day contract with the Royals in March 2011 to retire as a member of the Kansas City organization. He hit .297 with 325 doubles, 215 home runs, 909 RBIs and 759 runs scored during his career. He set the Royals' record with 144 RBIs in a season and is in top six in franchise history in 17 offensive categories. Sweeney is a special assistant to Royals general manager Dayton Moore.