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Headlines for Thursday, March 16, 2023

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Emily Fisher
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KPR

Efforts Stall to Legalize Medical Marijuana in Kansas; Issue Likely Dead for Session

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators aren't likely to legalize marijuana for medical uses this year. A Senate committee on Thursday tabled a bill that would allow a doctor to sign off on a patient using marijuana products to treat 21 illnesses or conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, spinal cord injuries or chronic pain, starting in July 2024. Committee Chair and Republican state Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee said he has no plans to bring the bill back up this year. Thirty-seven states allow the medical use of marijuana, and 21 also allow recreational use. But law enforcement officials continued to oppose legalization in Kansas and that bolstered the skepticism of some Republican senators.

Thirty-seven states allow the medical use of marijuana, including Oklahoma and Arkansas. Of those, 21 also allow recreational use, including Colorado and Missouri.

Democratic Governor Laura Kelly supports legalizing medical marijuana, but opposition from law enforcement officials bolstered the skepticism of Thompson and other conservative Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The Kansas House passed a medical marijuana bill in 2021, but the measure didn't receive a committee vote in the Senate. Like this year's bill, the earlier measure would prohibit smoking pot or vaping with it. The bill before the Senate committee would require both patients and their caregivers to register with the state health department to have permission to buy marijuana at state-licensed dispensaries. The state would impose a 10% tax on dispensaries' sales.

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Wildfires Fueled by High Winds Threaten Riley County

RILEY COUNTY, Kan. (KPR) - Two wildfires erupted Wednesday in Riley County, fueled by high winds. No injuries reported and both blazes were brought under control. The first fire broke out before noon in northern Riley County. That fire was quickly extinguished and only a small area burned. Then, just before 3:30 pm, another, larger fire broke out near the intersection of Anderson Avenue and West 60th Avenue near Manhattan. Upon arrival, crews found a rapidly expanding grass fire near Hidden Valley Trail. Additional fire crews were called in from the Fort Riley and the Manhattan Fire Department. Crews worked for more than four hours to control the blaze, then remained on scene to address hot spots. An estimated 400 acres burned. The cause of the second fire was determined to be a powerline that was struck by a fallen tree limb.

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Kansas Lawmakers Explore New Way to Boost Legislative Pay

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Kansas House members have voted to set themselves on a path to a pay hike in a few years. Legislators have not received a base pay raise in nearly 20 years. The bill passed by the House would establish an independent commission to set the compensation rates for Kansas legislators starting in 2025. It would then meet every four years to reconsider the pay level. Lawmakers currently earn roughly $22,000 a year plus a generous pension. Supporters contend raising wages would make it easier for everyday Kansans to run for a seat in the Legislature. But Republican Representative Pat Proctor says it would make state lawmakers professional politicians and lead to dysfunction. “Turning this from a public service to a job is a bad move for Kansas and a bad move for Kansans," he said. The bill now heads to the Senate.

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No. 1 Seed Kansas Cruises Past Howard with Bill Self Still Absent

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Jalen Wilson had 20 points and seven rebounds as No. 1 seed KU -- the defending national champs -- defeated Howard University 96-68. KU head coach Bill Self was not courtside for the game. The Jayhawks allowed Self to rest up from his recent heart procedure during first round action at the West Regional in Des Moines, Iowa. They Jayhawks will play Arkansas in the second round.

Before the game, KU announced Bill Self would sit out his fourth game in a row. Self was hospitalized for a heart procedure last week to relieve blocked arteries. Interim coach Norm Roberts has led the team in his absence. Seven Big 12 teams made it to the NCAA Tournament but one of them has already been bounced. West Virginia lost a close one to Maryland in an early first-round match-up.

Meanwhile... the Kansas State Wildcats play Friday. They'll take on Montana State at 8:40 pm.

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KBI Identifies Human Remains Found in Southeast Kansas Field

CHEROKEE COUNTY, Kan. – The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) and the Galena Police Department have identified the remains of a man found last month near Galena. Authorities identify the man as 52-year-old Peter C. Wittington, of Carthage, Missouri. Wittington last spoke to family members in late 2022. His remains were discovered February 27 in a field. The investigation has not indicated any signs of foul play. Authorities are awaiting the final autopsy report.

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Kansas Lawmakers Approve School Voucher Bill

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS/KMUW) - Kansas lawmakers have approved a bill that would let families use state tax dollars to pay for private schools. The Kansas House narrowly passed the measure but did not get enough votes to override a potential veto by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly. The bill lets parents open state-sponsored education savings accounts to use at any private or home school. It also includes more money for special education and a requirement that districts raise teacher pay — ideas supported by the governor. Democratic Rep. Kirk Haskins urged colleagues not to be swayed by the funding provisions. “We’re holding instructors’ salary as ransom to get this bill approved," he said. "If this bill was so great, why do we have to threaten the livelihoods of our teachers?” The bill has been heavily criticized by education leaders. Supporters say it will give more families an alternative to public schools, which they say are failing some students.

(-Additional reporting from AP-)

Backers of "School Choice" in Kansas Struggle to Get Agenda Past Governor

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Conservative Republicans in Kansas hoping to earmark state education dollars for helping parents pay for private schooling are struggling to win over enough rural and moderate GOP colleagues to get a law enacted. The Kansas House on Tuesday approved 64-61 a bill that would give thousands of parents $5,150 for each child they want to move into home or private schools, starting in the 2024-25 school year. Last month, the Kansas Senate voted 22-16 to approve a bill that would expand an existing program providing income tax credits to donors who contribute to private school scholarship funds. Neither proposal had the two-thirds majority necessary to override an expected veto from Democratic Governor Laura Kelly.

Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both chambers, which is what would be necessary to override an expected veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. But moderate Republicans and many rural GOP lawmakers oppose the measures, leaving supporters well short of being able to overturn a veto.

In the House, supporters of its "education savings accounts" bill hoped to push Kelly into accepting it by bundling it with her proposal to increase spending on public schools' special education programs by 14%, or $72 million, and by directing school districts to increase teachers' pay. Kelly has said repeatedly that she believes state education dollars ought to go to public K-12 schools. "I don't really react very well to game-playing or bribery or whatever you want to call it," Kelly told reporters after the House vote.

The debate in Kansas comes with Republican legislators in at least a dozen other states pushing "school choice" measures. Iowa lawmakers approved a law in January to provide state tax dollars to parents who want to send their children to public schools. And a proposal to create an income tax credit to funders of private school scholarships appears to have enough support in the Nebraska Legislature to pass.

But in Kansas, before a bill can go to Kelly's desk, conservative Republicans must themselves agree on the final version of a single bill. After the House vote Tuesday, the next step is negotiations between three senators and three House members.

State Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita-area Republican who chairs a House committee on K-12 spending and is likely to be its lead negotiator, said the plan for education savings accounts has support in the Senate. But Senate Education Committee Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican and likely her chamber's top negotiator said, "They gutted our bill."

Conservative Republicans across the U.S. have argued that states' education dollars ought to fund individual students' educations, not "systems." They argue that many parents would remove their children from failing public schools if they could afford to and that public schools simply aren't a good fit for some children. "If we do school choice, not only do we increase the competition in the school space, we put the parents firmly in the driver's seat," Republican state Rep. Patrick Penn, of Wichita, said during a news conference earlier this week.

But Kelly, her fellow Democrats and education groups argue that such proposals are designed to weaken public schools, especially when they divert their funds to paying for private or home schooling. Some critics also argue that there will huge additional costs when parents who already have kids in private schools take advantage. "I don't even know where to start," Lauren Tice, a lobbyist for the state's largest teachers' union and a member of a local Topeka-area school board, said of the union's objections. "Nobody can predict what kind of fiscal impact this will have."

Moderate Republicans in Kansas have long been skeptical of school choice initiatives, but they've been joined this year by rural Republicans who don't believe those measure have anything to offer areas with few or no private schools. They said public schools often are the heart of small communities. "Frankly, the home schoolers in my district want the government to stay out of their living room," said state Rep. Bill Clifford, a Republican from southwestern Kansas. "They were very resistant."

The House's measure would at first limit education savings accounts to students who are considered at risk of failing or who are at least one grade level behind in reading and math, as well as another 2,000 from working-class or middle-class families. The program would expand over three years so that students could be eligible if they are in a family of four with an income of up to $180,000 a year.

After the House vote, Williams said that she hopes Kelly will have "an open mind" about its measure, arguing that it represents "meeting in the middle." "This is really about helping disadvantaged kids," Williams said.

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Demonstrators Rally at Kansas Statehouse in Support of Medicaid Expansion

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Advocates — including Democratic Governor Laura Kelly — gathered at the Kansas Statehouse today (WED) to push lawmakers to expand Medicaid, as potentially thousands of Kansas could lose the health coverage because of pandemic programs ending. April Holman is the executive director of Alliance for a Healthy Kansas. She says the pandemic eligibility rules for Medicaid end this month. "As a result, approximately 100,000 Kansas adults will lose their health coverage over the next year," she said. Republican leaders in the Statehouse have continually opposed expansion for reasons including the cost. Lawmakers introduced expansion legislation this session, but there have been no hearings scheduled. Kansas is one of a dwindling number of states to yet expand Medicaid. South Dakota will expand this summer and North Carolina just recently announced bipartisan legislation. That will leave just 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid.

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Advocates Push Kansas Lawmakers for More Affordable Housing

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Kansas lawmakers are considering expanding an economic incentive program to build affordable housing in the state’s larger cities like Wichita. The incentive currently allows rural cities to issue bonds to build up to 100 residential starter homes. As home values grow, the new property tax generated is used to pay off the bonds. Hugh Carter, with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, says the incentive is necessary because developers aren’t investing in affordable homes. "If there’s such great demand for this work force type housing, why aren’t builders building it?," he said. "And the economics of building a 16,000-square-foot home or smaller just don’t pencil out." Affordable housing in Kansas has become scarce in recent years. A 2021 statewide housing assessment found about one in four Sedgwick County renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

The existing incentive allows rural cities to issue bonds to pay for the development of up to 100 residential starter homes. Senator Robert Olson, of Olathe, introduced the bill to expand the incentive to more populated cities. "In my community, affordable housing for people at the bottom, it’s just disappeared," he said. "We’re trying to get more starter housing for people at the bottom." The bill passed the Senate in February and still needs to pass the House.

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Kansas Anti-ESG Push Slowed by Debate over Private Investors

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican lawmakers pushing to prevent Kansas from investing its funds using socially and environmentally conscious principles disagree about imposing rules for investment managers handling private funds. That's complicating their efforts to thwart what they see as "woke" investing that could hurt the state's investment earnings. Committees in the Kansas House and Senate this week approved competing versions of anti-ESG legislation. ESG stands for environmental, social and governance. The Senate version would require private money managers to get their clients' written consent before investing their funds along ESG principles. The House bill contains no such provision. Supporters say it gives investors a broader and better view of risk.

The Kansas Senate's version of the anti-ESG measure would require private money managers to get their clients' written consent before investing their funds along ESG principles. The House bill contains no such provision.

The issue of requiring managers of private funds to disclose their ESG activities to clients or to get clients' verbal or written consent to use them appears to be the last major sticking point among Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature. They've already backed off the toughest version of the anti-ESG legislation because of opposition from powerful business groups, and have rewritten both bills to prevent projected investment losses of $3.6 billion over 10 years for the pension fund for Kansas teachers and government workers.

A desire to thwart ESG investing has some Republicans breaking with the party's longstanding aversion to tougher business regulations. "We have labels on our food," said state Rep. Michael Murphy, a Republican from rural south-central Kansas who backed the strongest anti-ESG legislation. "We could look at it and say, 'Well, I don't want that, and I'll take this over here.' It allows you to make that choice, and that's all this is."

Supporters of ESG principles argue that they're not about investment managers boycotting industries such as oil production. Instead, they encourage being more comprehensive about assessing investment risks, such as whether concerns about climate change make green energy more attractive and fossil fuels less so. They also argue that Republicans have turned ESG into a culture war issue to keep the GOP's conservative base riled up.

In Kansas, Democrats argue that anti-ESG legislation is unnecessary because state law already requires its managers to work to get the maximum investment returns possible. They also worry that even if the final legislation focuses on the investment of state funds, its provisions will be broad enough to handcuff cities and counties if, for example, they want to purchase energy from green sources. "It's going to cause problems," said Kansas City-area Rep. Rui Xu, the top Democrat on the House committee that handled the anti-ESG legislation.

Utah's Republican state treasurer recently told a GOP gathering that ESG "opens the door to authoritarianism" and is "Satan's plan." On Thursday, 19 GOP governors, including Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, issued a joint statement calling ESG a "direct threat to the American economy, individual economic freedom, and our way of life."

In Kansas, newly elected GOP Attorney General Kris Kobach and Republican State Treasurer Steven Johnson back anti-ESG measures, but they've argued that allowing the investment of state funds using ESG principles threatens to reduce the state's investment returns. Kobach has argued for an informed consent requirement for private money managers as a consumer protection measure.

But state Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican who chairs the House committee that handled anti-ESG legislation, said its GOP members don't want to impose new mandates on private businesses. "We have enough mandates on businesses already," Hoheisel said after the committee approved its bill. "In fact, we need to go back and start repealing some mandates on businesses."

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First Major U.S. Railroad Merger in 2 Decades Will Move Forward

UNDATED (AP) - The first major railroad merger in more than two decades, one that would link the United States, Canada and Mexico, is being approved by federal regulators. Canadian Pacific's $31 billion acquisition of Kansas City Southern will combine the two smallest of the nations seven major railroads after a two-year review from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. Safety was a primary concern for regulators after the fiery derailment in Ohio last month. But regulators say the new railroad has an excellent safety record.

Even after this merger, the new Canadian Pacific Kansas City railroad will be the smallest of the major freight railroads with about 20,000 miles of track. The rest of the industry is expected to remain stable with two major railroads in the Western United States — Union Pacific and BNSF — two in the Eastern United States — CSX and Norfolk Southern — and Canadian National running trains across Canada and parts of the United States. (Read more.)

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TC Energy Executive Grilled by Kansas Lawmakers

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - An executive with a Canadian energy company has been in the hot seat in Topeka, getting grilled by state lawmakers about the company's Keystone pipeline and its massive oil spill in northern Kansas. Democratic lawmaker John Carmichael, of Wichita, questioned Gary Salsman, the vice president of TC Energy. "Landowners and citizens are concerned about this. When should we expect you to be done?," Carmichael said. Salsman responded, "Unfortunately that’s not entirely within our control." Salsman said his company is committed to remediating the site and has cleaned up most of the oil. He wouldn’t talk to reporters after testifying. The company's Keystone pipeline erupted in December, spilling more than half-a-million gallons of oil in Washington County. Hundreds of workers have been working to clean-up the site ever since.

TC Energy has dedicated a webpage to providing updates on the oil spill and clean-up efforts.

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Man Arrested in Connection with Deadly House Fire in Southwest Kansas

LIBERAL, Kan. (KAKE) - Police in Liberal have arrested a man in connection with a deadly house fire that claimed two lives. Authorities say 22-year-old Hector Jesus Rey has been taken into custody in Texas. KAKE TV reports that Liberal police and fire officials responded early Monday morning to a house fire, where they discovered an unconscious woman inside the front door. She died later at a local hospital. Once the fire was extinguished, crews found a man dead inside the home. The deaths are being investigated as murders. Rey was arrested later in Texas and booked into the Jones County Jail.

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First Kansas Bills Signed into Law in 2023 Involve Art Projects at the Kansas Statehouse

TOPEKA, Kan. (TCJ) - The first two bills to become Kansas law this year involve art projects. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that one bill reauthorizes a replica of the Native American warrior statue atop the Capitol dome. The other bill involves a Statehouse mural of the first Black soldiers in the Civil War. Governor Laura Kelly signed the bills into law Monday.

Under the new laws, a life-sized replica of the Ad Astra sculpture that sits on top of the dome will be built at ground-level at the Statehouse. The bronze statue is already made and has been sitting in storage in Salina, waiting to be placed on a granite pedestal that sits empty on the southwest lawn of the Statehouse. Meanwhile, a mural will be made inside the Statehouse of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That regiment was the first U.S. military unit comprised of African-American soldiers.

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Kansas Could Get New State Park

TOPEKA (WIBW) – Kansas could be getting a new state park. A bill moving through the Legislature aims to create a new state park in Allen County. It would be the 28th state park in Kansas. WIBW TV reports that the bill was originally introduced by Republican Rep. Fred Gardner, of Garnett, on behalf of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP). The bill would add the Lehigh Portland State Park, near Iola, to the official list of state parks. The site, which includes a lake and 14 miles of trail, is home to a former cement plant and quarry along the banks of Elm Creek in Iola. The property is a mix of woodlands, meadows and native prairie.

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This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers, including J. Schafer, Laura Lorson, Tom Parkinson and Kaye McIntyre. Our headlines are generally posted by 10 am weekdays. These ad-free headlines are made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.