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Headlines for Friday, March 17, 2023

A colorful graphic of stylized radios with the text Kansas Public Radio News Summary
Emily Fisher

Report: Half of Kansas Rural Hospitals At Risk of Closing

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS/KMUW) - A new report finds more than half of rural hospitals in Kansas are at risk of closing. That could force residents to travel farther during medical emergencies. Kansas has seen nine rural hospitals close since 2005. But the report, from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, found that another 53 are at risk of closing, with nearly half of those are at immediate risk. When rural hospitals close, residents have to travel farther to get emergency and even medical care. Researchers cited financial woes, including insurance plans not fully covering the cost of providing essential services. Hospitals in states like Kansas, that have not expanded Medicaid, are more likely to be at risk of closure because hospitals take a financial hit when caring for uninsured people.


Kansas Governor Vetoes Bill on Trans Athletes

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Kansas Democratic Governor Laura Kelly has vetoed a bill banning biological men from competing in girls' and women's sports in public schools. The veto now sets up a showdown with the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature. Kelly says she rejected the bill because it would harm the mental health of Kansas students. Republican lawmakers had argued athletes assigned male at birth have a biological advantage when they play on girls’ and women’s teams. The Legislature will now need to garner a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate to override Kelly’s veto. Kelly has twice vetoed similar bills and both times lawmakers failed to override her. If lawmakers are successful in overriding the governor's veto, Kansas would join 18 other states with similar laws, including Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas.

(Additional reporting...)

Kansas Governor Pulls Out Veto Pen for Bill on Trans Athletes

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP/KPR) - Kansas Democratic Governor Laura Kelly has vetoed a bill on transgender athletes, setting up a fight with GOP lawmakers who are likely to attempt a legislative override. The bill bans biological males from competing in girls' and women's sports from Kindergarten through college. The governor's action was expected because of her two previous vetoes on similar legislation. Kelly says decisions about transgender athletes should be made by schools, doctors, families and local officials. She also says the legislation would hurt the state's business climate. Republicans have more than the two-thirds majorities in both chambers needed to override a veto, but in 2021 and 2022, a few GOP moderates voted against overriding Kelly. The House and Senate votes on this year's bill suggest supporters could have just enough votes to prevail. If supporters can override Kelly's veto, Kansas would join 18 other states with such a law, including Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas.

The measure is among dozens of Republican proposals pushing back against transgender rights in statehouses across the U.S. Kansas has bills aimed at banning gender-affirming care for minors and preventing transgender men and women from using bathrooms, locker rooms and other facilities associated with their gender identities. In defending the legislation, Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, recently posted tweets endorsing a theory debunked by multiple studies that a "social contagion" has led to more people identifying as transgender. He and other Republicans also have argued that banning transgender athletes will preserve fair competition and opportunities for girls and young women. "This bill ensures we're not moving backwards on 50 years of advances for female athletes," Hawkins said in a statement this week.

Kansas officials and LGBTQ-rights advocates say only a handful of young transgender people participate in high school activities - and possibly only one transgender Kansas girl is on a sports team. Backers of the bill argue that the state should act before transgender athletes become more prevalent. During her reelection campaign, Kelly aired a television ad that featured her looking into the camera and said, "Of course, men should not play girls' sports. OK, we all agree there." Republicans said she was lying about her record, and they've repeatedly mentioned her statement since. LGBTQ-rights advocates understood the ad as saying men aren't playing women's sports because transgender women are women.

Last year, supporters were short of a two-thirds House majority, but in last year's elections, three Republicans who supported a ban replaced GOP lawmakers who'd voted against overriding Kelly's veto. Also, while no Democrats voted last year to override Kelly, freshman Democratic Rep. Ford Carr, of Wichita, voted for this year's bill. Republican lawmakers in Kansas have also pursued measures to revoke the state medical licenses of doctors providing puberty-blocking drugs, hormone therapy or surgery for transgender minors. It passed the Senate last month, but the House hasn't had a committee hearing. Another Senate-passed bill would define male and female in Kansas law based on a person's anatomy at birth and declare that cisgender women and girls have a right to private spaces separate from men, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.


Kansas Appeals Court Issues Ruling on Election Law

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - The Kansas Court of Appeals has ruled that a state law restricting voting access must pass the strictest legal standards to be enforceable. The ruling comes as part of a challenge to a law that limits the number of ballots an individual may deliver and requires election officials to verify signatures on mailed ballots. The ruling means the law can be overturned if it does not meet that high standard. Pedro Irigonegaray is an attorney for the voting rights groups that challenged the law. He says lawmakers approved the legislation based on bogus claims of voter fraud. “And as a consequence, passed these draconian laws that are intended to suppress voters," he said. Republican House Speaker Dan Hawkins called the ruling shocking. He says all of the state’s election integrity laws are now endangered. Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach issued a statement condemning the decision, calling it wrong and "the most radical election law ruling in the country." He plans to appeal.


14 Year-Old Arrested in Deadly Topeka Shooting

TOPEKA (KSNT) – Topeka police have arrested a 14 year-old boy on charges of second-degree murder for a deadly shooting. The shooting happened Thursday night in central Topeka. The name of the victim has not yet been released. KSNT reports that the shooting took place around 8:30 pm near the intersection of 13th Street and Garfield Avenue, a few blocks north of Washburn University. Officers arrived and found a male suffering from a life-threatening gunshot wound. The victim was later died at a hospital.


No Injuries Following BNSF Train Derailment in Topeka

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Crews are responding to a BNSF train derailment in Topeka. No injuries or risks have been reported. The derailment comes as the rail industry is under scrutiny after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio, prompting evacuations. Kansas has seen a number of recent derailments. A Union Pacific train derailment in McPherson last weekend spilled denatured alcohol and started a small grass fire. A different Union Pacific train derailed in Wellington two weeks ago, causing more than a thousand residents to lose power. Some officials have called for stricter train regulations.


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.


WSU Tech President Testifies to Congress About Aviation Workforce

WICHITA, Kan. (KMUW) - WSU Tech President Sheree Utash spoke at a hearing before U.S. Congress members Thursday about the role of higher education in developing the nation's aviation workforce. The Senate Commerce Committee held the hearing to gauge some of the challenges faced by the aviation industry, as well as how to use existing institutions and resources to address those challenges. Utash says collaboration between public and private entities is the key to securing a strong aviation workforce. “I have long believed that the best three-legged stool to get things done is when government, education and industry work together in collaboration," she said. Utash says 92% of WSU Tech graduates are working in high-demand aerospace jobs in the region. The congressional hearing also discussed a shortage of pilots in the commercial airline industry, and how to involve more women and people of color in aviation.


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.


Kansas Corn Farmers Worry About Spread of “Tar Spot” Disease

UNDATED (HPM) - Farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains will have to worry this year about a corn disease known as tar spot. The fungal disease has spread from Mexico to several Midwestern states - including Kansas. Tar spot spreads through spores that are carried by the wind and farm equipment. The disease first appeared in the U.S. in Indiana and Illinois in 2015. It attacks leaf tissue and can rapidly cause the plant to die. Rodrigo Onofre, a professor at the department of plant pathology at Kansas State University, says it has the potential to be really destructive. “At this point it's more being aware," he said. "And, as I mentioned, gearing up for tar spot in Kansas, because as soon as we find it, there are ways to manage (it).” Farmers can keep an eye out for tar spot, report any sightings to the local extension agent and manage the disease using fungicides.


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 Saturday at 4:15 pm.

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.


Kansas Senator Announces $1 Million Grant for Mental Health Clinics

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Kansas Republican Senator Roger Marshall has announced a $1 million grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to help Kansas expand behavioral health clinics. Marshall says the grant will expand certified community behavioral clinics statewide. He says those clinics have been shown to reduce hospital emergency services. WIBW TV reports that proponents of the clinics say they have also provided help to law enforcement with 24-hour mental health crisis response services.


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."


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 power line that was struck by a fallen tree limb.


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.


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.


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 and updated throughout the day. These ad-free headlines are made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.