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Recent Kansas Editorials

Posted September 12

The Kansas City Star, Sept. 7

Why Tonganoxie residents should be worried about a new Tyson Foods poultry plant

Many residents in Tonganoxie — and tens of thousands of people across the region — are deeply worried about newly announced plans to build a massive food processing plant in northeast Kansas.

They're right to be concerned.

The project was developed secretly. The builder, Tyson Foods Inc., has a checkered environmental record.

Kansas should slow this process down until critical issues are addressed. If they aren't, the plan should be scrapped.

Tyson officials revealed the $320 million proposal Tuesday, joined by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and local politicians. "This is a great project," Brownback said.

But hundreds of residents crowded into meetings this week to bitterly denounce the plan.

The factory will create about 1,600 jobs. That sounds like good news on its face, but what does that mean for local schools? Truck traffic? Water and sewer service? Residents' safety?

And what damage might the plant do to the air and water?

Tyson's record in this realm is unsettling.

In April 2013, Tyson agreed to pay the federal government $3.95 million for violations of the Clean Air Act in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa — the four states that comprise Region 7 of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The violations involved eight different leaks of anhydrous ammonia, a poisonous gas. In 2006, a Tyson worker was killed as a result of one such leak in South Hutchinson, Kan. A similar leak in a Tyson plant in Omaha forced the evacuation of 475 employees.

There's more. In 2003, Tyson pleaded guilty in federal court to 20 felony violations of the Clean Water Act. The company admitted it illegally disposed of wastewater at its Sedalia, Mo., plant over several years.

The improper disposal continued "in spite of the company's assurances that the discharges would stop and even after numerous warnings, administrative orders, two state court injunctions, and the execution of a federal search warrant at the Sedalia facility," the Department of Justice said.

Tyson paid a $7.5 million fine in that case. Ancient history? No. "The company has a staggering water pollution footprint," the Environment America Research and Policy Center concluded just last year.

In a statement late Thursday, a Tyson spokesman said the company is not perfect.

"We acknowledge that," wrote Worth Sparkman of Tyson. "But we continue to improve in all areas of our operations, especially in environmental matters."

Kansans might feel better if they thought the government would protect their health once the plant opens. Alas, Brownback's lust for jobs appears to exceed any real concern for a regulatory safety net.

And the EPA? This week, we reported on the appointment of Cathy Stepp as acting administrator for the Region 7 office here. Stepp's pro-business, pro-polluter record is clear — and a serious cause for concern.

Tyson, in fact, may have little to fear from Stepp's EPA once the plant is up and operating. That's precisely why her appointment is so troubling.

This isn't just about Tonganoxie. Increased chicken farming in northeast Kansas could mean more fecal and fertilizer runoff into the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, where millions of residents get their water.

Kansans worried about the Tyson plant are right to demand answers before the plant proceeds.

We agree with them: Don't build this factory unless everyone is sure it's safe.

_____

The Topeka Capital-Journal, Sept. 9

Editorial: Time to debate Medicaid expansion

Over the past year, several polls have asked Kansans if they support Medicaid expansion in the state, and all of them have demonstrated widespread support. Last October, a Fort Hays State University survey revealed that 62 percent of respondents were in favor of expansion. A few months later, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network asked Kansans the same question, and reported even greater support: 82 percent. In April, the same organization (along with the American Heart Association) found that 66 percent of Republicans endorsed expansion.

If these polls didn't make Kansans' priorities clear, the crowds of people at the Statehouse should have done so. When lawmakers held hearings on expansion, more than 160 advocates, health care providers, business leaders and concerned citizens testified in favor of providing Medicaid to 150,000 of their fellow Kansans. The opposition, on the other hand, was sparse: only five people showed up. When lawmakers voted on expansion shortly thereafter, they demonstrated that they took their constituents' wishes seriously: the tally was 81-44 in the House and 25-14 in the Senate. But they couldn't override Gov. Sam Brownback's veto.

Medicaid is one of the issues that should remind the rest of the country that Kansas isn't the politically homogeneous state it's often made out to be. Kansans know their governor has given up hundreds of millions of federal Medicaid dollars (the Kansas Hospital Association estimates that the total is around $2 billion). They know they live in one of only 19 states that refused expansion. They know expansion would put health care providers — particularly vulnerable rural hospitals — in a much stronger financial position.

Kansans also know that the economic impact of Medicaid expansion isn't as straightforward as critics like Brownback would have them believe. This is why business owners, chambers of commerce and economic organizations across the state have declared their support for expansion. A 2013 brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation "assessed specific findings from 32 studies in 26 states" and found that expansion increased "state output, Gross State Product (GSP) and state and local revenues." KFF also reported that the studies demonstrated a "positive effect on jobs and earnings."

The gubernatorial race offers Kansans an opportunity to reiterate these points. While Democratic candidates are almost unanimously in favor of Medicaid expansion, there are divisions among Republicans. For example, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and former state senator Jim Barnett are both physicians, but they disagree on expansion — Colyer has been resolute in his opposition, while Barnett argues that eligibility should be broadened. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Ken Selzer and Wink Hartman all oppose expansion, while Ed O'Malley says his support is contingent on whether expansion would be cost-neutral (and if the federal government pulls out, he wants Kansas to do the same).

Bob Beatty is a political scientist at Washburn University, and he points out the significance of this diversity of opinion: "Where the candidates stand on Medicaid expansion may be one of the key differentiating factors in this primary." This would be a healthy development. Considering its significance for 150,000 Kansans — as well as hospitals and businesses around the state — Medicaid should be a major issue during this campaign. We should demand robust debate, and we can't allow candidates to obscure the facts (for example, those who oppose expansion often cite its costs and ignore the economic benefits mentioned above).

Kansans support Medicaid expansion, and we need to remind our future governor of this fact.

____

The Wichita Eagle, Sept. 8

A summer of uprisings heat up Kansas prison system's problems

We want a prison system to be a quiet part of state government. House inmates convicted of serious crimes, keep them safe and obedient while incarcerated, and begin a road of rehabilitation before their releases.

That's not what we're getting from the Kansas Department of Corrections. It's been a summer of heated uprisings that signal chronic problems in need of attention from the legislature.

Kansas' prison system is broken. Inmate crowding at some facilities is made worse by a shortage of corrections officers. Guards are underpaid and many leave for other careers, or even county jails that pay better. At least four major disturbances this summer - at two prisons - have called attention to the growing problem.

The latest uprising came Tuesday night at Norton Correctional Facility in northwest Kansas. It's normally a prison for medium- and minimum-security inmates.

What was described as an "inmate disturbance" by a Department of Corrections spokesman was termed a "full-blown riot" by a corrections officer who didn't want to be named in a McClatchy Newspapers story.

Maximum-security inmates were moved to Norton because of construction at Lansing Correctional Facility. They were unhappy to be at Norton and so far away from their families.

Inmates started four fires, took over prison offices, destroyed computers and even tipped over a medical response vehicle. The corrections officer estimates prisoners had control of the facility for about three hours. State troopers and corrections officers from three other prisons in central and western Kansas were called in to help.

On Wednesday, a Corrections spokesman said 90 Norton inmates who pose a "security challenge" would be transferred - many to Lansing.

A Lansing prison employee told McClatchy Newspapers that some maximum-security inmates were moved to medium security to accommodate the new inmates. So the solution to the Norton problem is to create the same problem at Lansing.

There are other issues. Guard retention became such a problem this summer at El Dorado that Gov. Sam Brownback traveled to the prison to announce immediate 10-percent pay increases for guards there. While a good public first step in easing the problem until the legislature convenes in January, it created yet another problem: Guards at other Kansas prisons didn't receive the same pay increase.

It's easy for most Kansans to read headlines about the state prison system and move on. They've never committed a crime, they're not planning on committing one, and it's someone else's problem.

But it does affect your neighbor, who's a prison guard. Or your friend's brother, who is incarcerated and wants to finish his sentence quietly and safely. These people are in harm's way of unruly inmates and can be victims of poor decision-making by prison officials.

Lawmakers know they can't afford to look the other way when the 2018 legislative session begins. There will be many challenges when they reconvene, and a failing prison system is quickly making its way up the to-do list.

It's not just about the system and how it's run. There are more than 9,000 Kansas inmates, but many are in prison for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses. These are offenses that, in some cases, could be handled without prison time and instead with rehabilitation and monitoring. That would ease prison crowding and alleviate some of the staffing problems seen this summer at El Dorado and Lansing correctional facilities.

The entire system needs scrutiny even before January's legislative session. Hearings need to begin as soon as the session begins. A Department of Corrections without news until then would be a relief.

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