The Topeka Capital-Journal, March 10
Alarming reports involving DCF require action
Measures clearly must be taken to prevent the Kansas Department for Children and Families from obscuring evidence related to deaths of children in foster care, as well as reports that 70 children on average were missing from their foster care placements.
The situation begs for an impartial investigation into allegations of neglect, abuse and lack of accountability on the part of DCF.
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Under legislation the House Judiciary Committee heard recently, DCF would be required to release basic information about child fatalities, including previous reports of mistreatment, the department's recommendation of services for a child, date of the fatality and the child's age and gender.
Such information should be considered a baseline requirement for an agency that has come under intense scrutiny after published reports indicated DCF employees had been urged to communicate by phone or with handwritten notes that were later shredded in order to undermine attempts by plaintiffs' attorneys in suits potentially filed against DCF.
In her appearance before the House committee, DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said the previous practice of destroying documents was no longer applied, while steps to reduce the adulteration of reports to conceal errors had also been taken.
House Bill 2728, which received the support of three organizations seeking more transparency in state government, is designed to at least shed some light on operations at DCF. The measure stems, in part, from past failings with reporting practices one worker alleged had covered up previous fatalities.
In an interview with The Capital-Journal, former DCF deputy director Dianne Keech said seven fatalities were reported to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Base in 2013, though she claimed she reviewed internal DCF reports on at least 20 fatalities that year.
The sad case of 3-year-old Evan Brewer's death sheds even more light on the failings of the agency. Documents that DCF released to the family last week showed that calls regarding the boy, whose body was found last year encased in concrete, had been made to DCF eight times. Mistakes made in the deaths of Kansas children in the foster care system prompted lawmakers to craft a bill demanding information be provided to help prevent such cases in the future.
For her part, Meier-Hummel supports the bill, as does Gov. Jeff Colyer, who has championed more transparency in state government since taking office in late January. During discussion regarding the bill, lawmakers questioned the DCF secretary, who assumed her position on Dec. 1, for information regarding changes in accountability within the agency she oversees.
That prompted the chairman of the House committee, Rep. Blaine Finch, of Ottawa, to attempt to keep the panel on task, concentrating on specifics applying to the transparency measure. "It's not our job to oversee DCF,? Finch said.
At this point, however, citizens of Kansas are seeking answers to a system in which the depth of the agency's failings also includes children under state care sleeping in offices of contractors. Those reports, coupled with abuse-related deaths and the unaccountability for children missing in the system, demands that state officials be diligent in tracing all problems and holding past DCF leadership accountable in order for the public regain any trust in the state's child welfare agency.
Especially since the welfare of children is at stake and the state's child support caseload is only expected to grow with more kids expected to be placed in foster care this fiscal year.
That caseload represents a financial burden the state can only deal with responsibly when it obtains as many facts as possible about issues legislators admit they have been apprised of for some time. The state and its lawmakers must be willing to further investigate past problems and apply procedures needed to correct flaws harmful to children in the system. Such neglect cannot be condoned.
The Kansas City Star, March 11
Will Kansas finally start collecting sales taxes on online purchases?
It's not often that the Kansas Legislature, which is comprised mostly of Republicans, smiles on a new tax destined to affect tens of thousands of consumers.
But that's exactly what's happening now as the House Taxation Committee, with bipartisan backing, has signaled support for imposing sales taxes on online purchases. This is a common-sense idea that lawmakers and Gov. Jeff Colyer should back this year. It will help level the playing field for Main Street businesses because they already charge their customers sales taxes, while online retailers do not.
"Brick-and-mortar stores are at a 7 percent to 10 percent disadvantage," Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Commission, told the committee.
By the way, the same arguments apply in Missouri, where Gov. Eric Greitens has proposed a similar idea.
It should be lost on no one that Kansas is desperate for new revenue as the state digs out from the Gov. Sam Brownback years. As of last summer, about $2.5 billion intended for state highways had been diverted to cover holes in other parts of the budget as a result of Brownback's tax cuts. That money will have to be replaced someday.
Meantime, Kansas has among the highest sales taxes in the nation on groceries. That, too, needs to change and the up to $170 million a year the online sales tax would generate could put a serious dent in that misguided policy.
This is the second year in a row that the House Tax Committee has passed such a measure. But this year's effort is viewed as a more serious push to get online taxes in place.
Kansas essentially is following the lead of a slew of other states that have become more aggressive about pursuing online sales taxes in the wake of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That ruling said states could require sellers to collect sales taxes only if the business has a physical presence in the state.
But with the online world exploding and eating up an ever increasing share of retail sales, states are feeling more urgency to act. In a perfect world, Congress would step in and establish uniform standards for online sales tax collections.
Congress, though, remains too mired in dysfunction for that to happen. As a result, states are stepping into the fray. They're ignoring the court's physical presence standard in lieu of one that calls for a company to have only an "economic presence" in the state. By that measure, states are saying that once companies reach a certain threshold for sales, they've established enough of an economic presence to start collecting sales taxes.
Passing any significant tax increase obviously is a challenge in a state like Kansas. That this is a midterm election year makes passing one doubly tough.
Colyer remains a wild card. His position on the issue is unknown. He's battling Kris Kobach for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, and that may make backing such a tax unlikely.
But this also represents something of a breakthrough moment. Republicans have long opposed taxing the internet. But a surge of pressure from those Main Street businesses has changed the political math. And the state's ongoing revenue needs are only compounded by the imperative to respond to the state Supreme Court ruling on schools.
The time for collecting online sales taxes has finally arrived.
The Lawrence Journal-World, March 11
Kansas lawmakers have a crucial school finance deadline looming, but they sure aren't acting like it.
It's bewildering that, facing a looming deadline on a complicated school finance bill, Kansas legislators are wasting time on an effort to call a convention of states.
Yet, with a new school finance plan due to the Kansas Supreme Court on April 30 and hardly any progress made, the Kansas Senate spent Thursday voting on whether to support a convention of states to propose and possibly add amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Article V of the Constitution provides for two ways to amend the U.S. Constitution. The first is through a vote of Congress that then must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures to become an amendment. Congress has proposed 33 amendments and 27 of them have been ratified by the states.
The second way to amend the Constitution is through a convention of states, convened when two-thirds of the state legislatures, or 34, vote to call such a convention. The convention allows states to propose and vote on constitutional amendments. Amendments that garner support of three-fourths of the state legislatures (38 states) would be ratified.
The purpose of the convention of states is to provide a check on Congress in the event that Congress isn't doing its job to a degree that requires the states to intervene. There have been efforts to call such a convention in the past, but none has ever been convened.
The Convention of States Project, a Houston-based organization that bills itself as a grassroots effort to bring power back to the states, is behind the current movement. According to its website, the group is advocating for a convention that would seek amendments that "limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, impose fiscal restraints, and place term limits on federal officials."
So far, 12 states — Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Missouri, Louisiana, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida — have approved the Convention of States Project resolution.
Kansas state Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said a convention of states is necessary to rein in the federal government.
"The federal government is out of check," he said. "Whether you're on the right and were afraid of the out-of-check Obama administration and Congress, or on the left and afraid of the out-of-check Trump administration and Congress, there's no question."
The problem with the Convention of States Project is that once the convention of states is called, there is no real limit on what amendments could be proposed. It is a radical method of amending the U.S. Constitution that should be reserved as an option of last resort.
Twenty-two senators voted for the resolution supporting the convention of states with 16 voting against. In order to be approved, the resolution needed a two-thirds majority or 27 votes.
Perhaps Kansas lawmakers can now get back to working on public school funding and the other very real and pressing fiscal matters before them and leave the business of amending the U.S. Constitution to those whose primary job it is — the duly elected members of Congress