The Garden City Telegram, July 6
Transparency takes back seat
In his so-called "Road Map for Kansas," Gov. Sam Brownback said:
"Government should always be accountable to the people. Accountability begins with transparency. A Brownback Administration will work to ensure that the actions undertaken by the state government are clearly explained and grounded in the equal application of the law. ..."
While that sounded great, we've instead seen deliberate moves to keep Kansans in the dark.
The most recent example came in the governor's refusal to release the names of applicants for a new position on the Kansas Court of Appeals — even though names of candidates for the court and the state Supreme Court have been disclosed for decades in Kansas.
Another example saw the governor, in the midst of budget and tax-related negotiations this past legislative session, endorse private talks among top Republicans on those issues.
Kansans deserved better as the state wrangled with a severe budget shortfall. Strategies to address massive income-tax cuts and a resulting budget crunch should have been vetted in an open, transparent process.
Also recently, the Kansas Corporation Commission — with a majority of Brownback appointees — avoided holding a public vote to sharply increase water rates for rural Salina residents. Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor filed a lawsuit against the KCC and its three commissioners individually for allegedly violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).
Of course, Taylor also was called on last year to investigate violations of KOMA by legislators who attended dinners hosted by Brownback at the governor's mansion. While the governor deemed the events social gatherings, he went too far in inviting select lawmakers to discuss public business in private.
Such private talks and negotiations only fuel skepticism at a time of growing distrust in government. In Topeka, they cast more suspicion on the dealings of Brownback and his ultraconservative Republican allies.
The governor vowed to run an open and accountable administration. Unfortunately, he's too often failed to practice what he preached.
The interest in secrecy suggests he has something to hide, and smacks of the kind of domineering behavior that should worry all Kansans.
The Wichita Eagle, July 7
Scrutinize Westar hike
Maybe Westar Energy will be able to justify its latest rate-hike proposal to the Kansas Corporation Commission as a smart and essential business move, but it's terrible public relations to raise rates on individuals in order to give a break to big commercial users.
The upset customers who spoke at last week's public hearing in Wichita pointed out the main problem with the request, a net increase of $31.7 million a year that would fund air-quality upgrades at Westar's coal-fired La Cygne power plant south of Kansas City: Westar wants residential users and small businesses to pay 6 to 9 percent higher rates while reducing rates by 6 to 15 percent on large businesses and school districts.
If that's a "rebalancing," it's an unbalanced and unfair one.
The estimated $7.50 a month more faced by the average residential user seems even less defensible given the context of Westar's 19 requested rate increases in the past four years for almost $470 million total.
Incremental hikes can add up to serious hardship over time, and unlike businesses, residential users can't pass them onto anybody else. David Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, notes that residential electric rates are higher in Kansas than in many nearby states, including Oklahoma and Texas.
And people seem skeptical of Westar's contention that cost analyses reveal big commercial and industrial users, unlike residential and small-businesses customers, pay more than it costs to provide them service. Springe says Westar's model weights costs toward peak power usage, and that an evaluation of overall usage finds the current rate balance between small and large consumers is about right.
Customer Ulysses S. Beasley said at the Wichita hearing: "Walmart and Boeing and all those people . they're making money off your juice. The residents don't make anything."
Westar customers should continue to weigh in on the case, either via a final public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday in Topeka that will have teleconference sites in Hutchinson, Salina and Pittsburg, or until Sept. 23 by mail, e-mail or phone. For more information, call 800-662-0027 or 785-271-3140 or go to www.kcc.state.ks.us/.
The rate case comes at a rough time for the state regulatory agency that oversees public utilities, oil and gas production, motor carriers and telecommunications. After an audit documented serious dysfunction at the KCC, Patti Petersen-Klein was replaced as executive director last month.
The three-member commission is making other operational changes in the face of an open-meetings lawsuit filed by the Shawnee County district attorney over its troubling practice of issuing orders without a public meeting or vote.
Kansans have reason to wonder what has happened to the professionalism of the KCC — and whether it represents the public interest or big business.
So with this rate case, the company and its regulator both have something to prove.
The Topeka Capital-Journal, July 7
State must maintain road system's reputation
Kansans have known for some time that their highways were among the best in the nation. Road trips to other states and other parts of the country continue to provide evidence supporting what we already know about our highway system.
Nevertheless, a recent report by the Reason Foundation proved to be interesting reading.
The foundation, which according to The Associated Press is a Libertarian-leaning think tank, ranked Kansas' highway system second among all states for its condition and cost-effectiveness, based on data from 2009. Only North Dakota's highway system was deemed better.
The Reason Foundation, which had Kansas ranked third the previous two years, wrote that the state maintained its highways in good condition at lower-than-average costs for maintenance and administrative costs.
Frankly, we didn't realize the state's cost for highway maintenance and administration were lower than average. That's good to know, as is the fact Kansas highways are held in good regard beyond our borders.
However, good highways can deteriorate rapidly if not maintained properly. It is important that Kansas continue to maintain and improve its highway system — not for the sake of rankings but rather for the safety of Kansas motorists and others who have occasion to travel to and across our state.
The highways Kansans enjoy now benefited greatly from major improvement and maintenance programs funded by three different 10-year programs, which began in 1989, 1999 and 2010, under the direction of the Kansas Department of Transportation. The Kansas Turnpike Authority has contributed with improvements and exceptional maintenance of 236 miles of highway running from the Kansas-Oklahoma border northeast to Kansas City, Kan.
Many Kansans were concerned earlier this year that a merger of KDOT and KTA would siphon money from the authority and detract from turnpike maintenance, but the final version of the merger bill sent to Gov. Sam Brownback stipulated that turnpike toll revenues couldn't be used for anything other than KTA projects.
That's good policy. But the state has a habit of diverting KDOT funds earmarked for highway projects to other uses. That's bad policy.
The diversions began years ago, long before the current administration was in power. History shows some KDOT money can be directed to other uses without significant harm but regular, large draws on that account eventually will have a negative impact on highway maintenance and development.
If Kansas' highway system is to maintain its superiority, the state must begin using all the tax money collected for highways on highways.
Hutchinson News, July 5
Obama gives businesses some breathing room
Businesses celebrated July 4th two days early this year, not with fireworks but instead a health-care reprieve from the Obama administration.
A decision by the president postpones until 2015 a provision of the Affordable Care Act that large- and medium-sized businesses offer workers health insurance coverage or pay penalties. Some business groups have told the administration they still are uncertain about implementation.
One of the chief complaints centers on understanding the complex reporting rules and other cumbersome mandates.
Indeed, businesses and individuals have a few things to sort out.
For individuals, the delay announced this week does not affect the Jan. 1 starting date that requires most Americans to have health care coverage or face tax penalties.
For businesses, some health industry experts say it would be cheaper for most companies to drop health care benefits and pay the penalties. That is just one of many aspects of the new law that left businesses scratching their collective head and pleading for a delay in implementing this provision. And reason enough for the administration to agree to the delay.
Though the reprieve came as a welcomed surprise to business, which claimed it could not implement the rule by 2014, the Obama administration needs to tread lightly when it comes to altering health-care reform.
This particular decision allows companies the necessary time to adjust, but businesses cannot — and should not — expect delays each time they cry wolf. There will be a point when the administration clearly needs to remind companies that they were given adequate time to implement provisions of the law.
For now, it is good to see Obama so amenable to meeting the needs of companies charged with providing health-care insurance to their employees. The president previously has been accused of being strident and unmoving in his approach, especially when it involves the business sector.
But Obama in this particular case understands that change is difficult, especially when businesses sometimes go out of their way to avoid paying health insurance for their employees. They've often relied on working employees just under 40 hours a week to avoid paying health insurance costs.
So there is plenty of blame to share - businesses that for years skirted the benefits issue for their employees and the Obama administration for pushing too soon and too fast an unwieldy health insurance mandate.
The president showed his flexibility this week. Now it's time for the business sector to meet its new deadline.