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Headlines for Monday, March 30, 2015


Kansas Officials Work to Get Budget Puzzle Pieces in Place

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Legislature is working to wrap up several key budget issues this week. Lawmakers are trying to eliminate a projected shortfall of nearly $600 million for the next fiscal year. The Senate has approved a $15.5 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1st but it won't balance without tax increases. The Republican leaders in the House aren't sure whether the chamber will vote on a spending plan before the Legislature begins its annual spring break Saturday. Lawmakers expect to consider proposed tax increases after returning from their break April 29th. Several bills under consideration this week will affect the spending plan. One deals with public pensions, another with tapping health insurers for additional fees, and a third with controlling the costs of mental health drugs under the Medicaid program.


Kansas Lawmakers Working on Plan to Issue Pension Bonds 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators are starting to hash out a plan for issuing $1 billion or more in bonds to shore up the short-term financial health of the pension system for teachers and government workers. House and Senate negotiators met briefly Monday and planned to reconvene Tuesday. Republican Governor Sam Brownback has proposed $1.5 billion in bonds. Supporters of the idea say the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System would get an immediate infusion of funds and the earnings from investing the money would more than cover bond payments. The move also could lower the state's annual payments to KPERS in the short-term. Critics see issuing bonds as risky. The House passed a bill last week authorizing $1.5 billion in bonds. The Senate passed a measure last month for $1 billion in bonds.


Ex-Brownback Aide Lobbying Against Tobacco Tax Hike

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Governor Sam Brownback's former chief of staff is lobbying against a proposed tax increase on tobacco, one of the governor's primary proposals to balance the state's budget. Kansas secretary of state's records show David Kensinger registered as a lobbyist for Reynolds American Tobacco Company on February 6th. That's six weeks after Kensinger was asked by Budget Director Shawn Sullivan for his input on a proposed state budget. The Wichita Eagle reports Kensinger confirmed he was representing an opponent of the tax increase, but declined to say if he began talks with Reynolds before the budget was made public, or whether his knowledge that a tax increase would be proposed helped him land the contract. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley says Kensinger's tobacco contract is a blatant conflict of interest.


US Supreme Court to Hear Kansas Plea to Reinstate Death Sentences

WASHINGTON (AP) - The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear the state of Kansas's appeal to reinstate death sentences for two brothers over the fatal shootings of four people in Wichita in December 2000 and for another man convicted of killing a couple in Great Bend. The justices said today (MON) that they will review rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court that threw out the sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr and Sidney Gleason. The Kansas court hasn't upheld a death sentence since the state enacted a new capital punishment law in 1994. The Carr brothers were sentenced to death for the four killings, which followed dozens of other crimes, including robbery and rape. Gleason was sentenced to die for killing  a couple in the central Kansas town of Great Bend in February 2004.


Kansas Senate Panel to Consider Expanding Liquor Licenses

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ Republican legislators are weighing the political risks of voting on legislation allowing supermarkets to sell stronger alcohol. Republican Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce said in a meeting of the GOP Senate caucus this week that the chamber needs to debate the issue as it looks ahead to the 2016 campaign. That's because the topic has been the target major lobbying efforts by both supporters and opponents. Supermarket and convenience store chains like Dillons, Hy-Vee and QuikTrip support the move, saying it will increase consumer choices.  But opponents say that allowing the major chains to sell alcohol would threaten the state's roughly 750 independent liquor stores.  Republican Senator Vicki Schmidt from Topeka said that voting on the measure would be risky because it would force lawmakers to publicly pick sides.  


Garden City Tank Manufacturing Plant Cuts 80 Jobs

GARDEN CITY, Kan. (AP) — A pressurized tank manufacturing company in Garden City is laying off 80 workers because of lower oil prices. The layoffs at Palmer Manufacturing and Tank, a subsidiary of Ohio-based Worthington Industries, are part of 245 jobs the company is eliminating in three states. The company also is closing a plant in Florence, South Carolina. Spokeswoman Cathy Lyttle says customer orders have dropped because of low oil prices and fewer new wells starting in the country. The Hutchinson News reports that the Garden City plant manufactures steel and fiberglass tanks and processing equipment for the oil and gas industry. It also makes custom manufactured fiberglass tanks for agricultural, chemical and general industrial applications.


ACLU Opposing Kansas Bill to Protect Campus Religious Groups 

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union says a Kansas bill on religious student organizations would allow discrimination on campus. The House Federal and State Affairs Committee considered a bill Monday that would prevent universities and colleges from denying benefits to religious student organizations based on their membership policies. The bill would allow religious student organizations to require their members to comply with the associations' sincerely held religious beliefs. Supporters said this would protect religious organizations from being pushed off campus. But ACLU Executive Director for Kansas Micah Kubic testified that the bill would allow student groups to have discriminatory policies and still receive public funds. Republican Representative Stephanie Clayton from Overland Park expressed concerns that the bill was too broad and could be widely interpreted.


Lawmaker Used State Plane to Fly to Topeka for Vote

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - State records show Representative Virgil Peck of Montgomery County used a state plane to fly from western Kansas to Topeka and back to vote on school finance bill. The Lawrence Journal-World reports Peck was the only passenger on the plane from Coffeyville to Topeka on March 13 so he could vote on implementing block grant funding for the state's schools. Peck went home March 12 to attend several events in Coffeyville and Independence with Governor Sam Brownback. The next day, the bill received 62 votes in favor, one short of the 63 needed for passage. By the time Peck arrived in Topeka on the plane, two other representatives had voted for the bill.


$1.5M Lawsuit Filed in Lawrence Beer Bottle Death

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The father of an Iraq war veteran who died after he was struck over the head with a beer bottle is seeking $1.5 million in a wrongful death lawsuit. A jury trial is scheduled for October in the case filed by Joseph Sardina. He blames 23-year-old Justin Gonzalez and Whitney Beck of negligence in the killing of his son Nicholas Sardina. The 27-year-old died in February 2012 when a brawl broke out during a house party in Lawrence. Gonzalez, of Mission, Kansas, is free on bond while appealing his conviction on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the killing. Gonzalez argues that he was defending himself. Beck was the host of the party. 


Feds Charge Union Pacific for Sulfuric Acid Spill in Kansas 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Prosecutors have filed a misdemeanor charge against Union Pacific Railroad over a 2012 spill of sulfuric acid after a derailment at the company's Herington yard in central Kansas. A criminal information filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Kansas alleges the railroad spilled 114,297 pounds of sulfuric acid from a railcar in Herington into Lime Creek. Company spokesman Mark Davis says Union Pacific is "committed to protecting the environment now and for future generations." He says there is no evidence of criminal intent, adding the company is disappointed by the government's decision to pursue the misdemeanor charge. The railroad is accused of violating the Federal Water Pollution Control Act during the January 8, 2012 incident. If convicted, the railroad is subject to a maximum fine of $200,000 per violation.


Judge Gives Tentative Approval to Deal in Tyson Meatpacking Case 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ A judge has granted preliminary approval to a proposed settlement of more than $730,000 in the class-action lawsuit brought against Tyson by workers at the company's meatpacking plant in Emporia. The deal ends a nearly eight-year legal battle. U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten also cleared the way on Monday for notices to go out to the nearly 4,900 affected current and former workers.  The court scheduled a final approval and fairness hearing for July 2 at the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. The lawsuit alleges that Tyson did not pay its workers for the time they spent putting on and taking off protective clothing and walking. Under the proposal, the workers would split about $377,000. Their attorneys would receive about $351,000 in attorney fees.


Swarthout Recital Hall on KU Campus Set to Reopen

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - A $2.5 million, 10-month renovation project is completed at Swarthout Recital Hall on the University of Kansas campus. The hall has been the School of Music's primary academic performance space since 1957. However, it had not been renovated for decades, prompting the university to begin the renovation project last year. The Lawrence Journal-World reportsthe hall will reopen with an eight-concert series starting Monday. Dozens of alumni are scheduled to perform during the series. The renovation included 273 new seats, a new performance area with improved acoustics, audio, lighting and recording equipment. The hall also has a new Steinway piano. The music school's dean, Robert Walzel, says the renovation was funded by a $1 million gift from the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation and donations from many others.


1 Person Dead After Minivan Hits Train in Butler County 

AUGUSTA, Kan. (AP) — One person is dead after a minivan struck a freight train in Butler County about one quarter of a mile north of Southwest 150th Street near Augusta. Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet says crew members from a different train called law enforcement at 1:10 am Sunday when they saw a vehicle on fire on the west track of the two Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. The sheriff says the driver failed to stop at the railroad crossing as the train went through, striking the train about 1,100 feet behind the lead engine. Emergency responders extinguished the fire and found the victim inside. Herzet says the body has not been identified and will be sent to the Sedgwick County Regional Science Center for dental and DNA verification.


Police: Motorcyclist Dies in KCK Crash

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Kansas City, Kansas, police say a motorcyclist was killed in a crash with an SUV over the weekend. Officers responded Sunday night to a report of an accident, and found a man in his mid-30s had died from his injuries. Police haven't released the man's name pending notification of family members. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.


Lawsuit Seeking Millions for Former Missouri Workers 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Lawyers are seeking what could be millions of dollars in damages for people who worked at the Jackson County (Missouri) Courthouse during an asbestos removal project in the early 1980s. Attorney Lou Accurso says the employees should receive free medical testing for the rest of their lives. He filed the lawsuit for two former employees but is seeking class action status. The family of a woman who died in 2010 from asbestos-related illnesses received $10.4 million from the county and the firm that did the removal, U.S. Engineering Company. The Kansas City Star reports the Missouri Court of Appeals reinstated the case this month after a lower court denied it class-action status. The county and U.S. Engineering contend there's no proof toxic levels of asbestos were found in the courthouse.


Ring Thief Sentenced to 11 Years 

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Wichita man was sentenced to prison for stealing a wedding ring from a woman who was dying in her car at a drive-through restaurant. Twenty-one-year-old Daquantrius Johnson was sentenced Monday to 11 years and four months for the theft in December 2013 at a Taco Bell restaurant. Prosecutors say he and two other men took the wedding ring, a purse and other items from Danielle Zimmerman as she was unconscious from a brain aneurism. She died the next day. Johnson will serve the sentence consecutively to sentences for other crimes, for a total sentence of about 20½ years. Despite public pleas and possible rewards, Zimmerman's ring was never found.


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