Headlines for Monday, March 2, 2015
Kansas Legislators Take Break
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators are on break until Wednesday. State lawmakers usually take several days off after the "turnaround" deadline that passed Friday. Most bills that have not been approved by their chamber of origin were discarded after the Friday deadline. Lawmakers passed a raft of legislation leading up to the deadline with a total of 97 bills passed by the two chambers last week. House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said in a statement that he was pleased with the chamber's work to pass 35 bills over the three day period leading up to the deadline. The Senate passed 60 bills in the two days before the Friday deadline — half of them in a marathon nine hour session that stretched from the Thursday afternoon to just before midnight. Lawmakers will return on Wednesday and remain in session until April 3rd, known as "drop dead day," then return April 29th after a long spring break to wrap up their business for the year.
Kansas Lawmakers to Focus on Resolving Budget, Tax Issues
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators are shifting their focus to building the next state budget now that their annual session has cleared its midpoint. The Republican-dominated Legislature began March needing to erase a projected shortfall of nearly $600 million in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. They also must decide whether they'll backtrack on personal income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013 at GOP Governor Sam Brownback's urging to stimulate the economy. They could pursue other revenue-raising ideas. House and Senate committees already have been reviewing Brownback's budget proposals. But March is when a full spending blueprint for the next fiscal year and another for the fiscal year beginning in July 2016 are supposed to come together. Legislators hit the 45th day of their 90-day session last week.
Kansas Republicans Working to Overhaul School Funding Plan
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Top Republican officials in Kansas are working on a plan to overhaul funding for public schools designed to prevent unanticipated demands for new spending. Republican Governor Sam Brownback is calling on the GOP-dominated Legislature to discard the state's current formula for distributing $3.6 billion in aid to school districts. He's proposed distributing most of the money to districts in "block grants". The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees said they expect to have a bill drafted by the end of this week. They said the measure will bring predictability to state and school district budgets. But Kansas school boards lobbyist Mark Tallman said it's impossible for districts to anticipate all of their funding needs and he said the proposal would hurt school districts with rising costs or a growing number of students.
Newell Rubbermaid to Expand Winfield Operations, Add 320 Jobs
WINFIELD, Kan. (AP) — Newell Rubbermaid is planning a $27 million expansion of the company's plant in Winfield and will add 320 jobs. Company officials announced Monday the expansion will occur during the next three years. It will allow the plant to increase manufacturing of food storage products and add manufacturing and distribution of some other Rubbermaid products. Newell Rubbermaid has operated its plant in Winfield since it acquired Gott Manufacturing in 1986. The company invested more than $26 million in the plant, including adding a distribution plant, in 2012. It is the largest employer in Winfield.
Largest Kansas Electric Company Seeking $152M Rate Increase
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The largest supplier of electricity in Kansas is asking state regulators to increase its rates by $152 million annually to cover upgrades at power plants and other costs. Westar Energy of Topeka said that the request it filed Monday with the Kansas Corporation Commission would increase its rates 8 percent. It said most residential customers would see monthly costs increase by between $9 and $13. Westar has about 700,000 customers in Kansas, including 595,000 residential ones. The company said the higher rates would cover upgrades required by federal air pollution standards, particularly at a plant in LaCygne in east-central Kansas. Westar also is part-owner of the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant near Burlington, and upgrades there will keep it operating until 2045. The commission must decide by late October.
KU Has Spent $3.5 Million on Private Jet Costs Since 2009
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The University of Kansas has spent $3.5 million of taxpayer money flying coaches and university administrators on 641 trips on private jets. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that the university's planes were bought by donors but taxpayers pay the costs of their operation. About two-thirds of those expenses were for flights by Kansas coaches and athletic administrators, and basketball coach Bill Self is the jet's most frequent flier. He flew 118 trips on private jets since mid-2009, costing $1.2 million. KU officials contend the use of the jets saves money when coaches or administrators have to go to remote locations in western Kansas or make quick trips to major U.S. cities. Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs, said the jets allow officials to use their time efficiently.
Court Revives Lawsuit from Ex-Detective Who Exposed Beating
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A federal appeals court has revived the lawsuit filed by a former Kansas City, Kansas, police detective who contends he was punished for refusing to cover up a motorist's beating by federal agents. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the summary judgment granted to the Unified Government of Wyandotte, returning the case to the lower court for further proceedings. The appeals court said Friday Max Seifert's testimony on behalf of the motorist was constitutionally protected speech. It found sufficient evidence to support his allegations that actions his employer took by removing him from investigations and revoking his commission were retaliatory. The case stems from an investigation Seifert conducted of Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in a 2003 road-rage incident that left a man with permanent brain damage.
Suspect Declared 'Heil Hitler!' After Jewish Site Shootings
OLATHE, Kan. (AP) — A police officer testified at a preliminary hearing that a white supremacist suspected of killing three people at two Jewish sites in Kansas declared "Heil Hitler!" after the shootings. Overland Park police Sergeant Marty C. Ingram testified Monday that Frazier Glenn Miller also asked how many Jews he had killed after the shootings on April 13, 2014. The hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to put Miller, of Aurora, Missouri, on trial. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty. The 74-year-old Miller is charged with capital murder in the shootings at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kansas, and at a nearby Jewish retirement home. None of the victims was Jewish. Miller's attorneys raised questions about how witnesses were identified.
Search Continues for 2 People in Shooting near KU Campus
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Lawrence police are looking for a man and woman suspected of being involved in a shooting near the University of Kansas campus that wounded three people. Arrest warrants have been issued for 20-year-old Rachael Ann Hampton and 24-year-old Robert Alan Long for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary. The charges stem from a February 8 shooting at a home just south of the Kansas campus. The three men at the home were treated and released for gunshot wounds. Twenty-two-year-old Caleb Chrisman of Grain Valley, Missouri was charged last week in connection with the shooting, which authorities say occurred during an attempted robbery. Hampton's parents issued a statement Saturday saying they haven't heard from her since February 7 and asking for her safe return.
Police: Wichita Man in Critical Condition After Stabbing
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Police say a Wichita man was taken to a hospital in critical condition after a neighbor stabbed him over the weekend. Authorities say a woman reported her male roommate leaving their apartment to visit a neighbor next door. They say the neighbor then told the woman that he stabbed her roommate. Officers arrived after the woman called police, and they say they found the roommate with stab wounds to his chest, side and left shoulder. He was taken to a hospital shortly after midnight Saturday. Police have arrested the neighbor on charges of aggravated robbery. Further details weren't announced in the incident. An investigation is ongoing.
Kansas Senate Panel to Have Hearing on Appeals Court Nominee
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas Senate committee is having a hearing this week on Governor Sam Brownback's appointment of a new judge to the state Court of Appeals. The Judiciary Committee plans to convene Wednesday for testimony on the nomination of Kathryn Gardner of Topeka to the state's second-highest court. The committee's agenda says the hearing could continue Thursday and a vote is possible then. The Republican governor named Gardner to the appeals court to fill a vacancy created last year by Brownback's elevation of then-Judge Caleb Stegall to the Kansas Supreme Court. Gardner has been U.S. Senior Judge Sam Crow's law clerk since 2000 and was an attorney in private practice with a Wichita law firm for 12 years before that. She also writes cowboy poetry.
February Report: Economic Growth Likely in Midwest, Plains
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A new report suggests economic growth is ahead for nine Midwestern and Plains states. The survey report issued Monday says the overall Mid-America Business Conditions Index climbed to 57.0 in February from 54.8 in January. Creighton University economist Ernie Goss oversees the survey, and he says the regional growth is likely although areas "linked closely to the energy sector, including ethanol, are experiencing pullbacks in economic activity." The survey results from supply managers are compiled into a collection of indexes ranging from zero to 100. Survey organizers say any score above 50 suggests economic growth, while a score below that suggests decline. The survey covers Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Feds: Man 'Well on His Way' to Becoming Violent Terrorist
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Federal prosecutors say a man accused of plotting a suicide bomb attack at a Wichita, Kansas, airport was "well on his way" to becoming a violent terrorist before authorities began investigating him. A heavily redacted government filing Monday seeks to counter defense arguments that an undercover FBI agent radicalized Terry Loewen. The defense contends the government conduct in the operation was entrapment and that terrorism-related charges against Loewen should be dismissed. But prosecutors argued it would have been outrageous for the FBI to leave Terry Loewen to his own devices, trolling the internet for someone to help him. Loewen was arrested in December 2013 when the former avionics technician tried to bring a van filled with inert explosives onto the tarmac at Mid-Continent Airport. Loewen has pleaded not guilty.
Kansas City Schools, ACLU Settle Suit over Ferguson Protests
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas City's school district has settled a lawsuit over its punishment of students who during a speech last year by Missouri's governor protested the deadly Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown. The district says it isn't required to compensate any of the affected students or pay the American Civil Liberties Union's attorney fees in settling the free-speech lawsuit filed in December. That suit came a month after Governor Jay Nixon's speech at the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple dismissed the lawsuit Monday. Court records don't provide details of settlement terms. The school system says it ordered the protesting students to serve Saturday detention not for exercising their free-speech rights but for refusing to sit down as ordered. The ACLU didn't immediately return messages Monday.
Former Kansas Superintendent and 2 Others Sue over Firings
GARDNER, Kan. (AP) — A superintendent and two of his top administrators who were fired last year are suing the Gardner-Edgerton School district in northeast Kansas. The Kansas City Star reports that former superintendent Bill Gilhaus and aides Christy Ziegler and Lana Gerber allege in federal court that they were wrongfully discharged. The two women further allege they were victims of sexual discrimination and harassment. Specifically, they allege that they were subjected to demeaning comments and treatment by two school board members. The former administrators are seeking unspecified monetary damages. Gilhaus said he lost at least $580,000 as a result of the board action.
Officials Fear Kansans Complacent About Tornado Season
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Weather officials in Kansas are worried that the state's lack of tornadoes last year will make citizens complacent going into tornado season this spring. The Wichita Eagle reports that officials are urging residents to not have a false sense of security since the state saw only 40 tornadoes last year. Kansas has averaged 100 tornadoes a year for the last decade and 80 tornadoes per year over the last 30 years. AccuWeather vice president Mike Smith said at a storm chaser convention in Denver that he sees troubling similarities between this winter's weather and 2011, which produced an outbreak of tornadoes in the Deep South, including the one that hit Joplin, Missouri. Nationwide, the number of tornadoes dropped 30 percent last year from 1,253 to 888, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Koch Industries Donates $2.6 Million to Kansas State
MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Koch Industries will donate $2.6 million to Kansas State University. The university announced in a news release Monday that the funds will support diversity initiatives, research and creative inquiry. Koch has sponsored Project IMPACT at the university for eight years, and the latest gift renews that support and directs new money to other projects. Project IMPACT recruits and retains multicultural students, and develops their interest in business, engineering and diversity. The new gift will also support the Kompass program, an orientation and first-year retention program providing incoming multicultural and first-generation students effective study habits. Koch also will help sponsor the Research and Creative Inquiry Enrichment Fund, which gives students real-world learning experiences, and supports faculty-led and undergraduate research projects and an annual Research Symposium.
Kansas Teen Pleads Not Guilty to Counts Linked to Fatal Fire
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — A 15-year-old central Kansas boy ordered to stand trial as an adult in the fire-related deaths of his mother and sister has pleaded not guilty to murder charges. KWCH-TV of Wichita reports that Buhler High School student Sam Vonachen was arraigned Monday in Reno County on two counts of premeditated first-degree murder. Vonachen also is charged with one count of attempted first-degree murder of his father, and of aggravated arson. Authorities allege Vonachen used gasoline to ignite his family's two-story Hutchinson home in September 2013, killing 11-year-old sister Audrey Vonachen and their mother, 47-year-old Karla Jo Vonachen. Prosecutors have played investigators' recorded interview of Samuel Vonachen. He told authorities that people are "awful" and he set the fire to send his family a message.
Kansas City Streetcar Construction to Wrap in Fall
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Officials say construction on Kansas City's downtown streetcar project is nearly 50 percent complete and is on track to finish this fall. But the vehicles will undergo months of testing before passengers can start boarding. It's likely the streetcars won't be open to the public until early 2016. The Kansas City Star reportsseveral small businesses say water and sewer work related to the construction project has inconvenienced customers for nine months, affecting their bottom line. However, the executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority and a spokeswoman of the Kansas City Streetcar Constructors say crews have worked hard to keep the impact of construction work minimal. They say the most disruptive street work is nearly finished.
Police: Woman Falls Through Ice, Dies Trying to Retrieve Dog
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Police in Kansas say a woman has died after falling through ice on a pond while trying to retrieve her dog. Wichita police Sergeant John Ryan said divers recovered the woman's body from the pond in park on the city's northeast side on Sunday. She was identified Monday as 28-year-old Erika Owen. Police say Owen was walking her dog when it spotted another dog and ran across the pond. She went out onto the ice after her dog. The dog fell through and also did not survive.
Stolen Goods from Joyland Park Found with Louie the Clown
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita police found several items stolen from the closed Joyland amusement park in the same home where they recovered the park's long-lost Louie the Clown statue. The Wichita Eagle reports that police returned last week to a home where the iconic clown statue was recovered and found items such as ghosts and tombstones from Whacky Shack and Porky the Paper Eater. A police report lists $26,100 in property taken from the amusement park between 2006 and 2008. Wichita police say some of the items have been recovered but others are still missing. Louie the Clown greeted visitors for years before the park closed. The statue had been missing for nearly a decade when it was found February 17 at the home of 39-year-old Damian Mayes, a convicted sex offender who once worked at the park.
Chiefs Place Franchise Tag on All-Pro Houston
The Kansas City Chiefs have placed the franchise tag on All-Pro pass rusher Justin Houston. The Chiefs announced the move on Monday, saying in a statement that "it was in the best interest of the club" and it pursues a long-term deal with Houston. Monday's move was widely expected given the relatively little progress Kansas City has made with Houston and his representatives on a long-term deal. The two sides still have until July 15 to negotiate a contract, and it is not certain whether Houston will immediately sign his tender. As an outside linebacker, the one-year deal would earn him about $13.1 million for the upcoming season. The Chiefs likely will need to make additional moves soon to free up salary cap space.