Monthly Archives: December 2011

From the ‘Thanks for clearing that up’ file…

The following is the headline from a Dec. 23 e-mail from the Kansas Democratic Party to its members:

“Kansas Democratic Party: Committed to electing Democrats in Kansas”

158 have applied for state’s new Rural Opportunity Zone incentives

Sun City, in Barber County, is included in the Rural Opportunity Zones initiative.

Rural Kansas may soon welcome some strangers.

More than 150 people have applied for a new state incentive that pays off up to $3,000 a year on college loans for graduates who move to eligible rural counties and refunds all state income taxes for folks who move from out of state, the Kansas Department of Commerce announced today.

Meanwhile, Chautauqua, Grove and Pawnee counties have joined the student loan reimbursement portion of the Rural Opportunity Zones initiative.

The program pays off up to $3,000 in student loans per year for five years for students who graduate from accredited colleges and technical schools. The incentive is available in 43 counties that have opted-in to the program. People can qualify for a 100 percent income tax reimbursement for five years if they  move into Kansas and haven’t lived here for at least five years and have had less than $10,000 income inside the state for the past five years. That incentive is funded by the state. It’s automatically active in 50 counties.

Gov. Sam Brownback cites the migration of people from Kansas to states with lower income tax rates when discussing broad concepts of the tax policy he plans to present during his State of the State speech Jan. 11 at 6:30 p.m. He has already said all types of credits, exemptions and deductions are on the table as potential cuts, even those that carry into state income taxes from the federal level. Brownback’s comments indicate that if he proposes reduced individual income tax rates, he will likely suggest dialing the rate down slowly over several years.

 

Council approves Genesis deal for health club at city’s Ice Center

The Wichita City Council has approved a deal for Genesis Health Clubs to build and operate a workout facility at the city-owned Wichita Ice Center.

A consultant for the project said Genesis will not give Genesis members discounts to use the Ice Center facility.

The plan calls for the city to float a bond to borrow $750,000 to remodel the second floor of the Ice Center into a health club. Genesis will pay off the bond debt and provide the exercise equipment and manage the facility for the city.

As its management fee, Genesis will keep 95 percent of the receipts from monthly passes and 80 percent of receipts from day-use fees.

Representatives of youth hockey and figure skating questioned the plan, saying it could limit opportunities for major regional or national competitions.

However, Genesis owner Rodney Steven said the glass partition walls and exercise equipment could be easily rolled out of the way to accommodate major events.

Democrats unveil ‘Kansas Jobs First’ proposal

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, talks about the Kansas Jobs First proposal at the Statehouse Tuesday.

TOPEKA — Kansas Democrats said this morning that a casino in southeast Kansas and slot machines at three racetracks could help pay for programs that increase the state’s odds of adding jobs.

The “Kansas Jobs First” proposal includes 14 bills lawmakers plan to introduce during the 2012 legislative session, which begins Jan. 9. The plan aims to ensure state spending goes to companies that employ Kansans; improve training programs; fix aging infrastructure and protect workers.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, acknowledged that his party’s plans face an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated legislature, but he and others said they believe their proposals will get bipartisan support.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said there has been a lot of attention focused on school finance, Medicaid reform, tax policy and others. “But there’s no more important issue, we believe, for the legislature to spend its time on than the issue of creating jobs for the people of Kansas,” he said.

Hensley said the economy has begun to recover from the recession, but more than 50,000 Kansas workers are still unemployed.

“Families are still struggling to keep a roof over their head, to pay for their child’s doctor bills, to keep their gas tank full,” Hensley said during a news conference in the Statehouse. “Workers are stuck in low-wage jobs because they lack the money or time to obtain the skills that will help them find work at a higher wage.”

The proposal calls for state gambling laws to lower the $200 million investment threshold required to open a casino to $100 million. Democratic leaders say that $200 million minimum has prevented Southeast Kansas from getting a destination casino. The plan would also modify thresholds for slot machines at racetracks to help re-open racetracks in Crawford, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties.

One proposal would use some gaming revenues for repairs at state universities and to fund city and county infrastructure projects, such as repairing crumbling sidewalks and aging sewer systems. Under the proposal, 50 percent of the state’s Expanded Lottery Act Revenues Fund money would pay for deferred maintenance projects at Regents facilities and 20 percent of the cash would go toward city and county infrastructure.

Democrats say industry estimates show opening three existing racetracks would generate $33 million per year for the state and that opening a new casino in Southeast Kansas would add $11 million per year. But Gov. Sam Brownback has said he doesn’t want the legislature to tackle the issue because it distracts too much from other pressing issues, including his proposals for tax policy, school financing, Medicaid reform and an overhaul of the state’s pension system — all of which Brownback is pressing for in an election year where lawmakers are grappling with redistricting.

Another bill would accelerate projects in the T-Works program, which Democrats say is slated to spend $440 million next year and $237 million in 2013 on road projects across the state. Their bill would push forward at least $50 million of that work by putting out for bid in February any projects that already have engineering complete.

Hensley said the T-Works acceleration proposal should have a lot of support. He said it is projected to create 175,000 jobs over 10 years. “That is a big deal for the state of Kansas,” he said. “And if we can accelerate that program, we’re going to create jobs much sooner than would have been otherwise. And I think that’s something that should definitely have bipartisan support during this legislative session.”

Hensley said Democrats researched and prepared their proposals with input from the business and labor communities.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka

The Democrats’ full set of proposals would cost $11.1 million from the state’s general fund in fiscal year 2013. But it is projected to generate $5.4 million in 2014 and $15.4 million in 2015. The revenue hinges entirely on gambling income.

Davis said Democrats were very conservative in their estimates, especially with gaming revenue.

Here’s a fiscal breakdown Democrats provided. Read More »

Reluctant council sets Feb. 28 for election on hotel subsidy referendum

UPDATE: The Wichita City Council has just voted to hold the referendum election on Feb. 28.

The decision was 6-1 with council member Lavonta Williams in dissent.

The council expressed reluctance to wait that long but approved the election date after Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman told the council that the time was needed to avoid errors and to mail ballots to military voters overseas and in other states.

Lehman said it would be “ill advised” to try to hold the election sooner.


The Wichita City Council just pushed back taking a vote on setting the date for a referendum election on a subsidy for a downtown hotel, saying they want the vote sooner than the election commissioner’s office has said it could hold it.

A letter from the county counsel’s office said the soonest that the election commissioner could hold the citywide public vote would be Feb. 28.

Council members said they want the vote to come sooner because they believe an extended campaign will slow development downtown and elsewhere.

At stake is an estimated $2.25 million subsidy for the planned Ambassador Hotel, a 117-room, $22.5 million boutique hotel planned for the former Union National Bank building at Douglas and Broadway. The money to fund the subsidy would come from allowing the hotel to keep 75 percent of the bed tax paid by hotel guests for 15 years.

The subsidy was forced to a public election by a petition drive, led by the free-market group Americans for Prosperity.

Petitioners gathered 2,719 signatures of verified Wichita voters to force a vote, more than the 2,527 signatures needed.

The council today has to either repeal the subsidy or set an election date.

But the council members weren’t happy with the Feb. 28 date and pushed the item to the end of the agenda.

They asked their staff to contact Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman and ask her to come to the council meeting to discuss setting an eariler election date.

Check back for updates.

SRS Director to step down at the end of the month

Siedlecki

TOPEKA – Rob Siedlecki, director of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, will resign at the end of December, Gov. Sam Brownback announced this afternoon.

Siedlecki, who has faced tough questioning from lawmakers about his proposed changes in the department, will take a new position with the State of Florida “to be closer to his family,” according to the administration.

Siedlecki, who is divorced, came from Florida earlier this year to take on the job as director of the SRS. His two school-age children live in New York and his parents live in Florida, according to SRS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha. She did not know what job he is taking in Florida, and she said he would not be doing media interviews.

His salary is listed as $115,000 as of May.

In prepared remarks issued by Brownback’s administration, Siedlecki said he promised Brownback one year to transform SRS to make it more effective and efficient.

“While I am returning to my home state of Florida, Kansas and Kansans will have special places in my heart,” Siedlecki’s statement read. “Kansas hospitality is real.”


Background reading

Brownback’s top SRS pick headed for confirmation, March, 29, 2011

Respected head of local SRS office fired, May 28, 2011

SRS cracking down on fraud, Aug. 14, 2011

Legislator: Foster-care forms go too far with personal data, Oct. 13, 2011

State Senator asks Governor to use savings on education

Sen. Ruth Teichman, R-Stafford

Sen. Ruth Teichman, R-Stafford, said today that she wants Gov. Sam Brownback to channel about $34 million in projected savings from an early retirement program into the education system, which has faced cuts in recent years.

The roughly 1,000 early retirements are expected to produce $8.9 million in savings this fiscal year and $29.6 million in the next fiscal year.

In a letter to Brownback and House and Senate budget committees, Teichman wrote that the state has cut $325 million from K-12 education, equating to nearly $18,000 in cuts to every classroom in the state.

“The toll on K-12 education has been severe,” she wrote.

Teichman, who is on the Senate Education Committee, said the cuts have hit rural areas hardest, led to lost jobs and could be hurting Brownback’s effort to attract more people to rural areas.

She referred to Rural Opportunity Zones, a Brownback initiative that provides income tax exemptions for five years when someone moves to a designated rural area from out of state and up to $15,000 in student loan forgiveness.

“Over 500 jobs have been lost in the past few years because of the severity of education cuts in these ROZ counties alone,” the letter says. “If a community loses its school, it loses its identity and becomes unable to attract new residents that would otherwise take advantage of the ROZ legislation.”

Teichman’s letter comes as Brownback’s administration prepares to present estimated school finance numbers to the Board of Education next week. Conceptual outlines presented around the state and to the education board indicated that no school district will receive less money than it gets under the current formula.

“Sen. Teichman’s concerns point to why the state needs a new school finance formula,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, said in an e-mail. “Governor Brownback will be announcing his proposal to get more money into Kansas classrooms very soon.  He looks forward to work with the senator and her fellow legislators on this very important issue.”

Sheriff’s sergeant, son of Vern Miller, saw it all in 36 years with Sedgwick County

Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Sgt. Clifford Miller accepted his retirement clock today from the place he worked for 36 years.

Miller, the son of former sheriff and Kansas attorney general Vern Miller, had the audience laughing and crying as he told of his career with the county.

“I have seen babies born, and I have witnessed people die,” Miller said. “I have seen people with injuries that should not have died. . . die, and those with injuries that should have died. . . not die. Five of the last six sheriff’s officers killed were personal friends of mine. I’d had breakfast with one of them the very morning he was shot and killed in this courthouse. I watched one of them die on the operating table after he was stabbed in Oaklawn. He was my fishing partner and one of my closest friends.”

Miller noted that he was deputized when he was 3 days old and spent much of his childhood at the courthouse.

He joked that in the early days, he and a lieutenant were part of the Sedgwick County Skunk Removal Program.

“Nowadays, we would have to call that SCSRP,” he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd. “He and I, when things were slow, would look for and shoot skunks out in the county. The one with the most skunks got a free breakfast from the other at the end of our shift.”

Miller said he had been involved in “the foot chases, the car chases and the barking dog cases.”

He remembered a case in which a fellow officer was struck with a skillet by a woman who had called 911 to report her husband beating her.

He said he had trained many officers, including several who passed him in rank.

“I of course claim my influences on them only when they have done good things,” Miller said.

Miller was one of seven people who accepted retirement clocks from the county today.

Wichita council raises water rates; business gets larger hike than residential customers

The Wichita City Council sided with its staff today and approved a water and sewer rate increase that will fall harder on business than residential customers.

Council members up and down the bench apologized to residents and said they didn’t want to raise the rates.

But they said they have to bring in more money for the system, to make much-needed repairs and upgrades for reliability and water quality.

“Just because it falls for free out of the sky doesn’t mean it’s unlimited, or that it’s free to clean it and deliver it,” council member Janet Miller said.

Under the plan approved by the council, residential customers will see their rates rise from 2.6 to 3.9 percent, with larger users receiving the lower percentage of increase.

A small user, at 3,000 gallons, will see the monthly water-sewer bill rise by $1.18, according to city documents.

A 15,000-gallon residential user will see the bill rise $2.78 a month, while a 22,500-gallon user will get an increase of $3.58.

Commercial rates will increase 8.3 percent, raising a 100,000-gallon water bill by $34.64 a month.

A major industrial user will see rates go up 8.2 percent, about $3,203 for a 10 million gallon bill.

City staff recommended smaller increases for residential customers to start rebalancing costs between them and the business users.

A rate study by an outside consulting firm found that residential customers are now paying more than it costs to serve them, in essence subsidizing business users by roughly $3.3 million a year.

The council turned aside a second, more business-friendly option.

The so-called “Option 2” plan had the support of the business-centric Water Utilities Advisory Committee, which was appointed by Mayor Carl Brewer.

Under Option 2, all customers, residential and commercial, would have seen an increase of 5.9 percent.

Under that option, residential rates would have risen $1.79 for the 3,000-gallon customer to $8.24 a month for the 22,500-gallon user.

The 100,000-gallon commercial business would have seen an increase of $24.63 a month — $10 less than under the option the council picked.

The 10 million gallon industrial user would have paid $2,312 more a month, a saving of about $900 a month over the plan the city picked.

By a 6-1 vote, the council opted to put the smaller increases on residential customers.

The lone dissenter, council member Michael O’Donnell, said he thinks that the rate structure that the rest of the council approved will hurt efforts to attract businesses.

Bringing in more business would mean more water customers, which he said would be a better solution to the system’s woes.

John Stevens, one of several speakers from Wichita Independent Neighborhoods, said the increase will hurt residents of poorer areas of town who won’t be able to afford to water their yards, contributing to neighborhood decline.

He also complained that the way rates are set – based on average winter usage – encourages people to waste water in the winter so their summer rates will be lower.

Public Works Director Alan King sought to debunk the public perception that dumping water during the winter results in lower summer bills.

He said the linkage between water and sewer bills makes that a money-losing proposition.

“What you might gain on the water side, you end up paying even more on the sewer side,” he said.

Group asks Wichita Council to support curbs on corporate political spending

A small group of citizens asked the Wichita City Council to join a larger cause today — seeking a resolution for a constitutional amendment to strip corporations of their political personhood.

Byrnes

“We ask for your support in declaring that corporations are not people,” said Jane Byrnes, a dietitian and former candidate for state representative. About half a dozen supporters came to City Hall with her, and stood during her remarks although they were not allowed to speak.

The group, calling itself “We the People of Kansas,” is supporting campaigns by Public Citizen and Common Cause seeking to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Citizens United. That ruling affirmed that corporations are considered people under the law and cleared the way for them to spend unlimited and undisclosed money on political campaigning.

“Following that ruling, in the 2010 elections, spending by outside groups rose at least 427 percent, about half of which went to secretive political committees which are not required to disclose their donors,” Byrnes said. “No corporation should be allowed to pump unlimited amounts of money into promoting one candidate or another, especially those (corporations) outside the region or the country.”

Although Byrnes ran for the Legislature as a Democrat, she said the issue she brought to the council is nonpartisan.

“There were Republicans, Democrats and independents in that group” at the council meeting, she said.