The Topeka Capital-Journal, Jan. 10
After longest session in history, Legislature needs to finish on time
Confidence in lawmakers often seems to be declining.
Criticism of actions taken by those who represent us in the Statehouse is hurled from more platforms, more positions and more sides with the growth of social media.
Yet one basic premise remains intact for the Legislature to follow: Finish your work on time.
The Legislature convenes on Monday. The session is traditionally scheduled to last 90 days. Last year's session lasted a record 114 days, resulting in cost overruns that frustrated Kansans.
It was difficult to comprehend all the complexities of the fiscal issues the Legislature faced when it was confronted with a $280 million deficit at the start of the 2015 session.
Yet, on principle, Kansans expect the Legislature to conduct business in a timely fashion. When issues cannot be resolved in the time generally allotted, citizens grow weary of clashes over policy and grow more convinced lawmakers are ineffective.
As the 2016 session convenes, another full agenda exists.
Ranking Republicans, however, have stated an ambitious goal of ending the session ahead of schedule.
With tax collections falling short of expectations, a projected deficit of approximately $190 million exists in a $15.8 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The shortfall must be addressed.
Measures pertaining to the budget could be complicated by a pending ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court on an education funding lawsuit brought by four school districts. That could impede any progress toward distributing more than $4 billion in state aid to public schools based on a new finance formula the Legislature hopes to adopt.
Additional challenges exist. As always.
Still, lawmakers must be expedient.
Delays resulting in sessions that drag past the anticipated completion only increase dissatisfaction with the performance of state government. Confidence in our elected officials erodes even further.
Completing this session in a timely fashion supports stated objectives by many legislators for achieving fiscal responsibility.
That is an appropriate message to send in a time when the state faces ongoing budget shortfalls.
The Wichita Eagle, Jan. 9
Top priority is fixing state's fiscal mess
Lawmakers surely hoped the worst of the 2015 session would be forgotten by the time the 2016 Legislature gaveled in. No chance of that, though, as the historic tax hikes that ended the record-long 114-day session were no budget cure.
Disappointing revenue collections month after month, despite downscaling of official estimates, mean the state could be $14 million in the red for the fiscal year that ends in June and at least $170 million short for fiscal 2017.
Will Gov. Sam Brownback's prediction of no more tax hikes or deep spending cuts hold up? Will state leaders just dig deeper into the highway fund to pay the state's bills, and cash in on their little-noticed suspension of the transportation department's borrowing cap last year? Could 2016 really see a 75-day session, as envisioned by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita?
Kansas voters will be watching all this closely, and noting how fiscal reality in 2016 conflicts with the rosy promises made about the 2012-13 state income tax cuts. Of course, offsetting the shortfall will do nothing to answer the multiplying needs for more money across state services, including at prisons and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
Lawmakers also must act quickly to bring court funding out of jeopardy, to protect patients and restore federal Medicare funding at Osawatomie State Hospital, and to audit and otherwise scrutinize the foster care system - including whether it's systemically discriminating against same-sex foster parents. Left over from 2015 was the need to prevent state officials from skirting the open-records law by using private e-mail accounts.
A functional, responsive Legislature also would help hospitals and the uninsured by expanding Medicaid. And it would repeal or at least further delay the law forcing state universities to allow concealed guns as of July 2017, a mandate causing security concerns among faculty, students and parents.
Unfortunately, prospects are poor for the bipartisan goal of exempting food purchases from sales tax, as Kansas needs the more than $400 million generated annually.
Of course, the Kansas Supreme Court could chart a new course for the 2016 session, if it sides with school districts and decides that the state must spend much more on K-12 education. With or without such a ruling, regrettably, the governor and Legislature can be expected to engage in more efforts to control and undermine the judiciary.
But as soon as the session starts Monday, the primary job of the governor and GOP legislative leaders must be fixing the state's fiscal mess. If they fail to do so responsibly - something that should mean revisiting the 2012-13 reform and its business exemption - they will do so at the risk of losing conservative seats when the entire Legislature is on the ballot in November.
The Manhattan Mercury, Jan. 10
What government wants us to eat
January means cold days, Christmas bills and, for many, a return to school. This January also comes with a fresh round of dietary advice, courtesy of the U.S. government.
That might seem like an annual event, but the nation's dietary guidelines — the government's official advice on what we ought to be eating — are revised every five years.
The latest revisions don't please everyone. Cancer researchers, for example, are irked by the absence of limits on red meat and processed meat. Because of the link between meat and cancer, an advisory panel had recommended limits, but to no avail, and according to the report, lean meat is fine as part of a healthful diet.
Still, researchers' concerns that the meat industry, the sugar industry — actually, the food industry in general — could sway the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of Agriculture on dietary guidelines should not be dismissed.
Those industry associations don't just provide information, they try to persuade, and when they can, they twist arms. And while Kansans enjoy a good cut of meat, consumers ought to know that the government's dietary guidelines reflect political pressure as well as scientific research.
Happily, there was plenty in the guidelines that drew support. Some of those recommendations sounded a lot like what mothers have been pushing for decades. Getting Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods is among the report's goals, and no wonder. Alice Benter, a nutrition expert for the American Institute for Cancer Research, said, "We estimate that avoiding obesity could prevent almost 122,000 U.S. cases of cancer every year."
While lean meat fared well, the guidelines, understandably, were none too keen on either sugar or salt. It isn't that they're inherently harmful for us, it's that we often ingest both in excess — even at dangerous levels — and often out of ignorance. Sugary drinks are a prime culprit for excess sugar, while salt — apart from what we shake on our food — seems to be a ubiquitous ingredient in our processed food.
As for cholesterol and eggs, the new guidelines are more tolerant than the 2010 set, in part because the kind of fats we consume apparently is more associated with heart disease than the amount of cholesterol in our blood. Still, the guidelines urge consumers to eat "as little dietary cholesterol as possible." It's worth noting that nutritionists, not the general public, are the target audience for these guidelines, whose practical impact will show up in public school lunch offerings and on nutrition panels on packaged foods.
As for consumers, if history is any guide, they'll pay about as much attention this time around as they did last time. not much.
The Hutchinson News, Jan. 8
Abortion opponents should be racing to follow recent strides by Oregon and California to bring birth control to women without a doctor's prescription.
Oregon this month became the first state to offer birth control at the pharmacy rather than needing to make an office visit to a doctor, and the expense that comes with it. California will follow with a similar law in March.
Because making birth control more accessible means fewer unwanted pregnancies, it's a step Kansans should embrace. Drive down any highway and you'll see signs with slogans such as "Life begins at conception." It Reducing unwanted pregnancies eliminates the need for abortions.
This is not a partisan topic, either. A Republican lawmaker, Knute Buehler, sponsored the Oregon bill. Another reason conservatives in Oregon and California like it is because it will save the states money. A study in Iowa and Colorado showed a savings of $5.85 in short-term Medicaid cost for every dollar spent on making access to birth control easier for women and teens. The same study showed a drop of 40 percent in the teen birth rate - a group more likely to end up on Medicaid.
Doctors are for this. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that, while there are risks, women are capable of screening themselves and determining which birth control method is right for them. The group of doctors even says California and Oregon may not go far enough in making birth control available over the counter. In those states, women will have to fill out a screening questionnaire and basically get a prescription from the pharmacist.
This is not a new idea. Women in 102 countries can get birth control without a doctor's prescription. The U.S. and 44 other countries require it.
Saving money and preventing more unwanted pregnancies and, hence, abortions? Kansas lawmakers, especially social conservatives, should be fighting over who gets to sponsor such a bill.