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State agriculture agency leaving Topeka for Manhattan

The Kansas Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it is moving to Manhattan in summer 2014.

The plan is to house the agency in a new 50,000-square-foot facility built by the Kansas State University Foundation in the group's research park.

Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman said the decision was made to move so the agency could work closer with other agricultural and bioscience entities, including the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. "Manhattan is the value-added center for agriculture," Rodman said.

KDA will maintain its main administrative offices in Topeka, but will move the majority of its programs to Manhattan. In addition, the department will maintain current field offices in Stafford, Stockton, Parsons and Garden City.

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Kansas officials call for immigration reform

Several Kansas officials on Tuesday called on Congress to approve immigration reform.

"We need a national solution and we need it soon," said Allie Devine, a former Kansas agriculture secretary.

In Washington, D.C., several Republican and Democratic senators are trying to craft a bill to secure the nation's borders, improve legal immigration and offer eventual citizenship to millions of people now in the country illegally.

Mike O'Neal, former Kansas House speaker and now chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said, "A well-crafted and targeted worker program, coupled with an effective border protection policy, offers the best hope of a ‘win-win’ strategy.”

Others speaking in favor of a bi-partisan immigration measure were the Rev. Mark Mertes of Blessed Sacrament Church; the Rev. Jason Schoff of Mission Adelante; both of Kansas City, Kan.; and Bob Stephan, former Kansas attorney general.

"Hispanics and other undocumented workers contribute to our society and they deserve a solution to solve the dilemma that faces them and our nation. We must design a road to lawful status and citizenship that respects those who have been in line and awaiting naturalization," Stephan said.

The roundtable discussion featuring Kansas officials was held at the Savior Pastoral Center Retreat and Conference Center in Kansas City, Kan. The event was sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum.


House, Senate budget negotiators remain at odds over higher education funding

Topeka — House and Senate budget writers on Tuesday remained at an impasse over funding of higher education.

The House has approved a 4 percent reduction to higher education while the Senate has proposed a 2 percent cut.

In addition, the House has proposed other cuts from job vacancies, salary caps and other changes for a grand total of $63.35 million in reductions, compared with the Senate's cut of $21.25 million.

On Monday, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little met with House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and other House leaders to talk about higher education funding.

Higher ed officials pointed out that a recent national report noted that recent cuts in higher education have led to steep tuition increases.

States are spending $2,353 or 28 percent less per student on higher education in the current fiscal year than they did in 2008, when the recession hit, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

During that period, tuition has increased $1,850, or 27 percent, the study said.

"Reversing these trends and reinvesting in higher education should be a high priority for state policymakers. A large and growing share of future jobs will require college-educated workers," the study said.

Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed keeping higher education funding at its current level.

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Brownback signs into law the paycheck deductions bill that KNEA opposes

Without comment, Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday signed into law a bill that bars public employee unions from taking voluntary deductions from members' paychecks to help finance political activities.

House Bill 2022 was sought by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and conservative legislators.

They argued that state and local government agencies processing payrolls shouldn't be involved in the transactions that divert money to political action committees. They also contended that people were being coerced into making this contributions.

Opponents, including the Kansas National Education Association and Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the paycheck deductions are voluntary and the bill was a thinly disguised attempt to weaken the political influence of public employee unions.

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Gay rights advocate says compromise reached on quarantine bill

Topeka — A gay rights advocate said Thursday a compromise has been reached on a bill that could result in the quarantine of people with AIDS or HIV.

House Bill 2183 would remove a current provision that exempts those with HIV or AIDS from possible quarantine.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials said they wanted to remove the exemption because HIV and AIDS are infectious.

During a hearing on the bill, Paul Marx, an associate chief counsel with KDHE, said there would be no medical reason to isolate or quarantine a person infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS. But Marx added, "I can't say that would never happen, if the virus were to mutate." He added, however, "That is hugely speculative."

Tom Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said he wanted the HIV/AIDS quarantine exemption restored.

During a House-Senate conference committee meeting, it was agreed to include the phrase "medically necessary and reasonable" when dealing with a quarantine issue.

"Since even KDHE publicly concedes there is never a `medically necessary' reason to quarantine someone with HIV, local health officials will not be able to get away with using the new law to justify harassment of people living with HIV/AIDS," Witt said.

Witt added of the compromise, "This is not perfect — no compromise ever is. We would rather see the specific HIV exemption preserved in law. However, given the extremely conservative tilt of our current state government, this is the closest we are going to get to ensuring people are treated fairly."

HB 2183 clarifies procedures on testing a patient for communicable diseases when a health care worker has been exposed to that patient's blood or bodily fluids.


House budget negotiators stand by 4 percent cut to higher education

Topeka — The House and Senate budget conference committee today started negotiations and the House stood by its proposal to cut higher education funding by 4 percent.

State Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, (left) who is chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and state Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, start conference committee negotiations on the state budget.

State Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, (left) who is chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and state Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, start conference committee negotiations on the state budget. by Scott Rothschild

The reduction would mean a nearly $10 million cut to Kansas University.

The Senate has proposed a 2 percent cut.

While the Senate plan has a smaller cut, it also reduces the state's student financial assistance programs by $437,832. The House plan doesn't cut those programs.

The House and Senate also differ on proposals to fund a medical education building at KU Medical Center.

The House agrees with Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to provide $3 million in the next fiscal year to jump start construction of the building. The Senate plan would allow KU to use funds for the project that are generally allocated to take care of deferred maintenance and repairs on university buildings and facilities.

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Appropriations chairman alleges that head of Kansas Turnpike offered $25 million to kill merger proposal

Topeka — House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said the head of the Kansas Turnpike Authority offered Gov. Sam Brownback $25 million to back off his proposal to merge the KTA with the Kansas Department of Transportation.

KTA President and Chief Exeuctive Officer Michael Johnston denied the allegation.

Rhoades made his comment Monday during committee discussion of a proposal to take $30 million in "savings" from KTA and KDOT to support general state operations.

State Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, said no one from the Brownback administration has explained how those savings would occur. The savings, he said, "seems to be a number plucked straight from the air."

Rhoades responded, "Maybe it would come from the $25 million that the director offered the governor."

Asked to respond to Rhoades' comment, the KTA's Johnston said, "There is no truth to it."

He said of revenue collected from tolls on the 236-mile turnpike, "This money doesn't belong to me, and I can't spend it without board approval."

Johnston said a House member called him recently and asked him whether he offered $25 million to kill the merger proposal. "I gave him the same answer I am giving you," Johnston said. He declined to identify the House member.

As far as the proposed savings that Brownback has said would be realized if KTA were brought under KDOT, Johnston said he has no idea what the governor is talking about. "I was never consulted about anything," he said.

Also on Monday, the House gave final approval to a bill that says the KTA and KDOT should work together to minimize duplication of effort in maintaining the turnpike and state highway system.

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Bill introduced to abolish death penalty in Kansas

Topeka — A bill was introduced Thursday that would abolish the death penalty in Kansas.

State Rep. Steven Becker, R-Buhler, said the bill would replace capital punishment with a sentence of life without parole.

The measure would also establish a fund for anticipated savings from eliminating the death penalty, and use those savings to assist families of homicide victims.

The last time the Kansas Legislature debated repeal of the death penalty was in 2010 when the Senate voted 20-20 to abolish capital punishment. That was one vote less than the 21-vote majority needed to advance the measure.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, but no executions have been carried out since then.

Supporters of abolishing the death penalty say it requires extra funding to litigate death penalty cases, which robs dollars from other budget needs.

Becker's bill was introduced before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.

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Advocates for undocumented immigrants urge rejection of bills

Advocates for undocumented immigrants on Wednesday urged the Legislature to reject a bill that would establish an Arizona-like "proof of citizenship" law.

About 50 people with Wichita-based Sunflower Community Action assembled in the Statehouse to protest Senate Bill 140 and House Bill 2192.

SB 140 would authorize law enforcement to determine an individual's immigration status if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is here illegally. The measure has been referred to the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, but no hearing has been held.

HB 2192 would repeal in-state tuition for some undocumented, college-eligible immigrant students. No hearing has been set on this bill either, but supporters of the current law note that the repeal could easily be amended into any bill dealing with the budget or education.

Several young people spoke at the rally about how they were brought to Kansas as infants by their parents who were seeking a better life for their families. They said they consider Kansas their home and that the proposed bills would provide a hardship for many hard-working families.

Members of Sunflower Community Action assembled Wednesday in the Statehouse to urge rejection of two bills that they said would hurt immigrants.

Members of Sunflower Community Action assembled Wednesday in the Statehouse to urge rejection of two bills that they said would hurt immigrants. by Scott Rothschild

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Even states opposed to Medicaid expansion are working on Medicaid expansion

Topeka — In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative Republican colleagues in the Legislature seem to be following the no-way, no-how lead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry on whether to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

But this story link text in the San Antonio Express-News shows that not all is as it appears in Texas.

While Perry, whom Brownback backed for the Republican nomination for president, is taking a tough-guy stand against Medicaid expansion, key legislators in the Lone Star State are working behind the scenes for a "Texas solution."

And there may be more acceptance in conservative Republican circles for a proposal by Arkansas that has apparently gotten the green light form Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor. This bloglink text reports that Sebelius has said OK to the plan to use Medicaid dollars to buy private insurance.

So far, Brownback says he is undecided on whether to opt in to expanding Medicaid in Kansas, although whenever asked he says he worries about the costs and notes the state's budget problems — problems caused by income tax cuts he signed into law last year.

And conservative Republicans in the Legislature are pushing a resolution opposing the expansion of Medicaid. Hospitals and health care groups oppose the resolution. In addition, a statewide poll conducted on behalf of the Kansas Hospital Association found that 60 percent of Kansans support expanding Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would pay the entire cost of the expansion for three years, and then that share would fall down to 90 percent after that.

Currently, Medicaid provides health care coverage to about 380,000 Kansans. The largest portion of them, about 230,000, are children. The rest are mostly lower-income, pregnant women, people with disabilities and elderly people. The $2.8 billion program is funded with federal and state dollars.

Medicaid in Kansas doesn’t cover low-income adults who don’t have children. And a nondisabled adult with children is eligible only if his or her income is below 32 percent of the poverty level, which is approximately $5,000 per year. That is about the most difficult eligibility level in the country.

But starting in 2014, the ACA creates an eligibility level of 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $15,415 per year for an individual and $26,344 per year for a family of three.

Estimates are that expansion would cover upwards of 150,000 more Kansans.

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