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2013 year in review: Top 10 stories from the Sunflower State

2013 year in review: Top 10 stories from the Sunflower State

By Travis Perry, Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — It’s over, done, finalized, finito. With the final days and hours of 2013 ticking to a close, we figured it’s a good time for reflection on what the last 12 months have brought the Sunflower State.

So, without further delay, Kansas Watchdog presents its Top 10 stories of 2013.

Strip Club

1. Wayward welfare dollars

An in-depth investigation into howKansans spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in government welfare money came to a shocking conclusion: a striking number of transactions appear to be going toward anything but the basic necessities. From casinos and liquor stores to smoke shops and even strip clubs, Kansas Watchdog uncovered more than $43,000 in transactions at shady ATM locations around the state. To make matters worse, all this only took place over a three-month period.

Read It:
Kansans spent welfare cash on strippers, smokes and sour mash

Video camera

2. Camera-shy state lawmakers

Fun fact: Did you know the Kansas Capitol is capable of broadcasting live video online of some of the Legislature’s most important committee meetings? Don’t beat yourself up over it. A striking number of lawmakers don’t know, either. It’s the end result of years of apathy that has led the state to be one of only 11 nationwide that do not stream some form of live video. If some kid in the middle of nowhere can attract global eyeballs with nothing more than a camera phone, what’s keeping the Kansas Legislature off the air?

Read it:
Camera shy: Kansas legislators sidestep transparency
Eye in the sky: Kansas legislative leader won’t require streaming video

3. Judicial selection gymnastics

Here’s a shocking revelation: politics sway candidate commentaries, and Kansas is no exception. Gov. Sam Brownback’s pick for the Kansas Court of Appeals is a prime example of this, after the situation prompted his Democratic gubernatorial challenger to switch sides on his stance to oppose the new nominee. And how could we forget that, in their rush to criticize the conservative governor, Kansas Democrats conveniently forgot thatKathleen Sebelius did almost the exact same thing only a few years earlier.

Read it:
Democratic leader flip-flops on Kansas judicial nominee
Partisan politics fuel Kansas Democrat’s change of heart
Kansas Democrats use double standard on judicial nomination criticism

4. Follow the money

And as long as we’re on the topic of judicial nominees, how about we turn the spotlight on a few other critics of Brownback’s decision? Namely theLeague of Women Voters and Justice At Stake, both of which claim to be nonpartisan organizations while simultaneously accepting large sums of cash from George Soros’ liberal nonprofits, the Tides Foundation and Open Society Institute.

Read it:
Soros bankrolls ‘nonpartisan’ critics of Kansas governor
‘Nonpartisan’ critic says Soros cash hasn’t caused political bias
money-limit

5. Fiscal follies

Ever wonder just how much work goes into calculating the cost of a legislative proposal? Not that much, apparently. While state agencies claim they don’t pad their figures, government critics charge them with doing just that, and a close inspection of a few cost estimates only bolsters the case. Should it cost $17,000 for the state to put online a spreadsheet of data it already has? What about $20,000 for a program agency officials say could have been absorbed in-house? Yea, we thought so too.

Read it:
Fiscal follies: Kansas cost estimates draw criticism

 
money jail

6. Your money, behind bars

How much should Kansas spend to lock up individuals whose only crime is drug related? While lawmakers are struggling to figure out what that figure should be, the reality is that Kansas drops about $42 million annually to keep these men and women in prison. To make matters worse, state law enforcement statistics suggest it’s overwhelmingly because of Kansas continues to wage war against marijuana.

Read it:
Kansas spends millions to keep non-violent drug offenders behind bars
Twinkies-2

7. Raking-in the dough

Remember the media flurry surrounding the implosion of Hostess, one of America’s most iconic snack food manufacturers? Well here’s something you probably missed. According to the government, former employees were knocked out due to foreign trade pressure, and for that deserve extra benefits above and beyond standard unemployment insurance. But everything uncovered by Kansas Watchdog seems to point to the contrary. Curious? So were we.

Read it:
Former Hostess workers land sweet deal, taxpayers foot bill
Did foreign trade really cause Hostess’ demise?
Couch fire

8. Couch crackdown

If you’re looking for the nuttiest story of the year, look no further. The City ofLawrence, Kansas’ liberal bastion, only months ago brought us the headache-inducing mandate that city residents are not, in fact, capable of policing their own safety. Rather, officials passed a ban on front porch couches, despite the fact that local and nationwide statistics suggest it’s less of an issue than advocates would have folks believe.

Read it:
Kansas community cracks down on couches
Islam Display

9. Islamic fervor

Wichita-area school came under fire earlier this year after students and parents were greeted on the first day of school with a large display outlining the five pillars of the Islamic faith. The matter prompted emotions of all scope and size, and landed the school squarely in the national spotlight.

Read it:
Kansas lawmaker ‘appalled’ by Islamic display in school
KansasSeal

10. Counting for attendance

The legislative session is a busy time for any elected official, but some are less (or more) busy than others, it seems. After Kansas lawmakers headed for home in June, Kansas Watchdog took an in-depth peek at how they faired in the preceding months, and what we found was jaw-dropping. In all, seven members of the House of Representatives had missed more votes than all other members of the House combined.

Read it:

Handful of Kansas lawmakers outpace all others for missed votes

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at@muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Kansas school spending advocates take to Twitter

A few days ago someone sent me a message on Twitter, regarding something I wrote about Kansas schools.

As Tweets are too brief to discuss the issues, I do so here.

It’s true that state education spending — that portion of total school funding provided by the State of Kansas — has fallen. But total school spending per student is different. It has fallen too, but by much less. That’s because at the same time state spending was falling, local spending remained steady, and federal spending rose.

Kansas school spending per student, adjusted for CPI

The nearby chart (click on it for a larger version) shows the totality of Kansas school spending, according to Kansas State Department of Education. Overall school spending per student, adjusted for inflation, fell for two years. It rose a small amount last year. Spending from all sources, individually and collectively, is much higher than ten years ago. Remember, the figures in the chart are adjusted for inflation.

We’ve increased spending on schools, both in Kansas and across the nation, by huge amounts will little to show in the way of results. This actually ought to give us hope, because if we can eliminate our fixation on spending as the cure for all problems, we can start to seek actual solutions.

Kansas school employment

On the topic of class size: Pupil-teacher ratio is not the same as class size, but it’s the data we have. Also, the story is not the same in every district. But considering the entire state, two trends emerge. For the past two years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Correspondingly, the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen.

Kansas school employment ratios

The trend for certified employees is a year behind that of teachers, but for the last year, the number of certified employees has risen, and the ratio to pupils has fallen. This article holds an interactive visualization of this data: Kansas school employment trends are not what you’d expect.

There’s also this to consider about class size. In 2011 the Center for American Progress released a report about class size reduction in schools and the false promise it holds for improving student achievement. While I am normally quite cautious about relying on anything CAP — a prominent left-wing think tank — produces, I’ve read the report, which is titled The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction. It’s accurate.

It’s quite astonishing to see CAP cite evidence from Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution and Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Hoover. These two researchers are usually condemned by the public education establishment and bureaucracy, including teachers unions. These are some of the key constituents CAP usually caters to.

In a nutshell, class size reduction produces very little benefit for students. It’s also very expensive, and there are other things we should be doing instead if we really want to increase student achievement.

The report summarizes the important studies in class size reduction, and it’s accurate, based on the reading I’ve done over the years. The upshot is that there is only one study showing positive results from class size reduction, and that effect was found only among the early grades. The effect decreased after a few years, even though small class sizes were still used.

The report also notes that class size reduction is very expensive to implement. Because it is, the report says we should look to other ways to increase student achievement, such as policies relating to teacher effectiveness: “The emerging consensus that teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school determinant of student achievement suggests that teacher recruitment, retention, and compensation policies ought to rank high on the list.”

On teacher quality and teacher effectiveness: When Sandi Jacobs of National Council for Teacher Quality appeared in Kansas a few years ago, we learned that Kansas ranks below average on its policies that promote teacher quality.

In the example she illustrated, third graders who had teachers in the top 20 percent of effectiveness for the next three years went from the 50th percentile in performance to the 90th. For students with teachers in the lowest 20 percent for the same period, their performance dropped from the 50th percentile to the 37th percentile. My reporting of that event and an audio recording is at Kansas ranks low in policies on teacher quality.

Kansas unemployment, the credit or blame

The unemployment rate in Kansas dropped from 6.2 percent to 5.9 percent in September. Before figuring who to credit for this, we ought to take a look at the underlying trends.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback was quick to take credit, issuing the tweet “KS unemployment rate dropped to 5.9% in Sept. lowest rate since Dec. ’08.”

Jason Perkey, who is Executive Director of the Kansas Democratic Party, wanted to give the credit to President Barack Obama, as can be seen in his tweet.

Looking at the numbers behind the unemployment number, however, reveals something that I don’t think either party wants credit for: a shrinking labor force.

Todd Davidson of Kansas Policy Institute took a close look at the numbers that go into forming the unemployment rate, and here’s what he found: “The drop did not come from higher employment. 7,819 fewer Kansans were employed in September 2012 than in September 2011. The unemployment rate is lower because over 20,000 Kansans dropped out of the labor force over the last year.” More details are at Taking a Closer Look at the September Unemployment Rate.

Graphically, here’s what the situation looks like. The number of people in the Kansas labor force has been declining. When the number of employed takes a slight uptick, the unemployment rate can decline by a fairly large amount. But it’s not part of an encouraging trend.

Sedgwick County updates agenda information system

Recently Sedgwick County implemented a new system for making its commission agendas and accompanying background material available online.

Previously, only the agenda itself was available online. Agendas contain just a brief description of each item to be handled at meetings. If citizens wanted more information about an item, they had to travel to the courthouse to obtain a printed copy of the agenda report. This document, which might be several hundred pages in length, contains detailed information about each item. It’s the type of information that citizens need if they are to be informed about the matters the commission will consider at each meeting.

The new system makes this information available online. It also handles the minutes and video of past meetings. You can access the system through the Sedgwick County website. Navigate to the County Commission page (the drop-down box at the top right is easy and always available.) Then in the stack of links at the right of the screen, click on Commission Meetings.

Now if you click on any meeting on or after August 25, 2010, you’ll be in the new agenda system.

Using the new system, I found that it took a few moments to become familiar with the way the system organizes the agenda information. Once you get used to it, you can move around the agenda and examine supporting documents easily. Background material is usually presented in small chunks as pdf documents, and it’s easy to print just the few pages that you might be interested in.

The system also allows the public to enter comments, presumably to be read by commissioners or staff before meetings. In a nod to social media and other networks, you can share agenda items on Facebook, Twitter, and other systems. (Sample tweet: PURCHASE OF REAL PROPERTY LOCATED AT SECOND STREET AND ST. FRANCIS IN WICHITA, KANSAS. Presented by: Ron Holt, bff. http://t.co/gl22l3U)

Besides the public face of the system, it will also be used internally by county staff and commissioners to handle agenda paperwork more efficiently.

A fact sheet on the new agenda information system promotes its cost savings, estimated to be $15 per week in reduced usage of paper. The benefit to citizens, however, is access to agenda background information without making a trip to the courthouse. These trips were necessary, as my several recent requests to have background information emailed to me were always declined.

While this system may save $15 per week in paper, it was undoubtedly an expensive system to purchase and implement. According to a county budget document, the five-year cost of this project is $142,594. That doesn’t include internal resources devoted to this project and its ongoing support.

Its goals are more ambitions than what was required to provide citizens with the agenda background information, which was the one area where Sedgwick County was deficient. Many governments, such as the city of Wichita, have made this information available by simply posting the entire agenda report. That’s a simple solution that has worked, although not with all the functionality that the new Sedgwick county system provides.

RightOnline in Las Vegas this week

Later this week the RightOnline Conference takes place in Las Vegas, Nevada.

This is the third year for this conference. It’s held at the same time — and in the same city — as the Netroots Nation. Or NutRoots, take your pick.

The event features a lot of training and some great speakers. Michele Bachmann will headline the Friday dinner, and the Saturday general session features speakers like Andrew Napolitano, Mike Pence, Robert McDowell, Herman Cain, Erick Erickson, and John Fund.

RightOnline is sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Click on Podcast: Erik Telford Previews the RightOnline Conference to hear an interview with AFP’s Erik Telford. To keep up on Twitter, the hasthag is #ro10.

Articles of Interest

Capitalism, CFL bulbs, green indoctrination, bailout constitutionality, Facebook, Twitter

‘The Road to Serfdom’ revisited: Markets display uncertainty over future of capitalism itself (Scott S. Powell in the Washington Times) Discussion of how government interventionism in the economy is not helping. “President Eisenhower called it ‘creeping socialism.’ Nobel Prize winner Friedrich von Hayek called it ‘The Road to Serfdom.’”

Do New Bulbs Save Energy if They Don’t Work? (New York Times) Many customers are not happy with compact fluorescent light bulbs. Short life for the expensive bulbs is a common irritation.

‘Green Hell’ Coming Soon to a Life Like Yours (Human Events) A review of a new book that merits reading. “Be prepared the next time your child comes home from school with some nice ‘green’ project or attempts to lecture you about how you ‘should’ be doing more ‘sustainable’ activities to ‘save’ the Earth. You will be ready to confront teachers, political leaders, neighbors, and annoying aunts with the astounding new book by Steve Milloy titled Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them.”

Bailing Out of the Constitution (George Will in the Washington Post) Is the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 — that’s the $700 billion bailout of banks from last year — constitutional? Perhaps it isn’t, argues Will. It has to do with the Vesting Clause of Article I says, “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in” Congress.

Is Facebook Growing Up Too Fast? (New York Times) Facebook will soon have 200 million members. All are not happy, evidence being the recent controversy over a redesign of some of its most important aspects. There’s also the “coolness” factor: can kids like a social network that their parents are now using?

When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May Be Lurking (New York Times) “In many cases, celebrities and their handlers have turned to outside writers — ghost Twitterers, if you will — who keep fans updated on the latest twists and turns, often in the star’s own voice. Because Twitter is seen as an intimate link between celebrities and their fans, many performers are not willing to divulge the help they use to put their thoughts into cyberspace. … It is not only celebrities who are forced to look to a team to produce real-time commentary on daily activities; politicians like Ron Paul have assigned staff members to create Twitter posts and Facebook personas. Candidate Barack Obama, as well as President Obama, has a social-networking team to keep his Twitter feed tweeting.”

Articles of Interest

Journalism, crime alerts, war on drugs, minimum wage, stimulus and education

The State of the Fourth Estate (Jordan Ballor at the Acton Institute) What will happen to journalism in the digital age? The article describes its importance to a free society, with reflection from a Christian view.

Alert system tells you when a crime occurs (Stan Finger in the Wichita Eagle) Receive email or text messages alerts concerning crime in your area by signing up at www.citizenobserver.com. Maybe criminals will start using Twitter to tweet about their escapes, making it easier for police to capture them. While email and text messages are fine, this is a good application for Twitter, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this service expanded to include Twitter.

From the Trenches of the Drug War: A Street Cop’s Perspective (The Future of Freedom Foundation) Speaking of crime … what is the true cost of the war on drugs? Lessons from the front.

Raising BC’s minimum wage: Good intentions, bad policy (The Frazer Institute) As we in Kansas appear ready to raise our state’s minimum wage — with good intentions (I wonder about that sometimes) — consider the well-known unintended consequences: “The most damaging consequence of minimum wage increases is that employers respond by reducing the number of workers they employ and/or the number of hours their employees work. In other words, minimum wage increases result in higher unemployment for low-skilled workers and young people. This unpleasant reality is well documented in the research.”

Spec. Ed. Stimulus Money Raising Cautions (Education Week) Managing the use of stimulus money may be tricky: “Within the next few weeks, though, the federal tap will open up, releasing an extra $6.1 billion for districts to use for special education, with another $6.1 billion to come later this year. … Though grateful for the largess, school leaders face restrictions with that money. The rules governing the use of federal special education money mean that it’s unwise for districts to use the added funding to start new programs or hire new teachers. If they were to do so, districts would have to continue to pay for those costs in two years, when the federal infusion goes away, under a provision in the IDEA that requires districts to avoid making large cuts in programs from year to year.” What should the money be spent on? Professional development is one recommendation mentioned.

Pew Internet and American Life Project Redesign

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has redesigned their website. This organization has been a valuable source of information about the Internet and how people are using it.

As an example, here are some of their recent research reports:

Twitter and status updating: “As of December 2008, 11% of online American adults said they used a service like Twitter or another service that allowed them to share updates about themselves or to see the updates of others.”

Adults and Social Network Websites: “The share of adult internet users who have a profile on an online social network site has more than quadrupled in the past four years — from 8% in 2005 to 35% at the end of 2008.”

When Technology Fails: “Half (48%) of tech users need help from others in getting new devices and services to work, and many experience tech outages when there is a glitch with their home internet connection, computer, or cell phone.”

Articles of Interest

Subsidizing Bad Ideas What are some of the things wrong with the president’s plan to solve the mortgage crisis? Howie Rich of Americans For Limited Government explains: “First, the plan is emblematic of America’s new “dependence mentality,” which is advanced by politicians like Obama who rhetorically extol the virtues that once made this country great while they systematically remove brick-by-brick the incentives needed to make it great once again. Second, it’s more of the same smoke-and-mirrors Washington politicians employ to hide the true coming-and-goings of your tax dollars in our nation’s capital. Third, it rewards many of the same financial institutions whose mistakes have helped bring this nation to the brink of fiscal ruin – and incentivizes them to make those same mistakes all over again.”

Judging Obama John Stossel explains some of the problems in judging the success of failure of President Obama’s economic interventions, and who should get the credit or blame.

Obama Gives Failing Schools a Pass: The day of reckoning has arrived — except for teachers’ unions (Chester E. Finn Jr. & Michael J. Petrilli in National Review). “This is classic Obama, straddling the Democratic divide on education, just as he did so deftly during the campaign, striving to placate both the reformers within the party and the union bosses. … It’s no accident that our schools aren’t producing enough well-educated graduates; that’s because the system has been designed to place the needs of adults over the needs of kids. But saying any of that would put him at odds with the education establishment, which he doesn’t appear to want to cross.” More indication that President Obama will not implement any meaningful education reform.

Zoomdweebie’s builds success on Twitter (Wichita Eagle). A Wichita business uses social media like Twitter to boost business.

The Government’s War on Recession. Lew Rockwell explains some of the problems and dangers with the way the Obama administration is attacking the problems with the economy: “The economics of stimulus are not as complicated. They amount to taking from some and giving to others. There is no wealth creation at all. There is no magic ‘multiplier’ to turn stones into bread. The economics of stimulus is value-destroying, because property is pried loose from owners who are putting it to socially useful purposes, and given to government so it can pass it out to friends. This process is costly to overall wealth production — and most of those costs are unseen. We will never know what kind of real stimulus could have taken place had the property been left in private hands. What jobs might have been created, what investments might have been made, what kind of business expansions might have taken place? We will never know.”

Follow Me on Twitter. I’ll follow you.

Some people have asked if I’m on Twitter, and the answer is yes. Here’s a link to my Twitter profile, from where you can choose to follow me.

I don’t use Twitter as much as a lot of people do. I don’t have a mobile device like a Blackberry. I have a regular old-fashioned cell phone. (Isn’t is funny to think of a plain cellular telephone as old-fashioned, even quaint?) So I just update from my computer.

What I mostly do on Twitter is to post titles and urls to new blog posts. There’s a problem, though. Often the title of the post plus the post’s url are over 140 characters long, the limit for Twitter. But, Twitter reduces long urls to short ones using tinyurl, and usually the title plus the short url are well within the 140 character limit. But, Twitter doesn’t know that, so it won’t accept the post. I’ve reported this to Twitter, and they’re thinking about it. Such are the issues of software engineering and programming.

Update: Why didn’t I think of his on my own? Just use tinyurl.com to create your own short urls. Even simpler, the Firefox addin “TinyURL Creator” makes this process quite simple.

Defending the American Dream, or RightOnline in Austin 2008

I just returned from Austin, Texas, attending a conference put on by Americans For Prosperity partnering with Sam Adams Alliance, Heritage Foundation, Leadership Institute, and Media Research Center. Thank you to my friend Erik Telford for inviting me to this conference.

We had some great speakers. Robert Novak is a favorite person of mine. I devoured his autobiography The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington last year. He told us that he believes the Republicans will lose seats in both houses of Congress, but the presidency can be won. Also: “I like Ron Paul (cheers)…but not for President” (Thanks, Nic Hall, for reminding me of this.)

I always like listening to Tim Phillips, president of Americans For Prosperity. He told us it’s important to let the few “good guys” in government know that we stand behind them, and conferences like this are one way to do that.

Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal told us, and it is reported today in the opinion piece Their Fair Share that Americans with income above the median paid 97.1% of all income taxes. Barack Obama doesn’t think that’s enough. This reminded me that we have two classes of people in America: tax payers, and tax consumers. Regarding the death tax: “No taxation without respiration.”

Steve Lonegan of AFP in New Jersey has an inspiring life story about overcoming blindness as a young adult. The state wanted him to become a client and go to vocational training (to be a basket weaver, he said), but instead he earned an MBA degree.

Grover Norquist: “The left are not friends. The are a band of competing parasites.” Also: “Republicans who raise taxes are rat heads in Coke bottles.”

Michelle Malkin is an inspiration to me. Did you know, I believe she said, that Gen. Wesley Clark whines about the “right wing freak machine”?

Bob Barr, the Libertarian party candidate for president, spoke at a reception. One of his topics? How he introduced the articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton. This is inspiring? Although he did say “Libertarianism lies in the heart of every American.”

It’s always interesting to me to see how these speakers are different in person from when they’re on television. My friend Maggie Thurber at Thurber’s Thoughts has some more good remarks on the speakers.

A few things that I learned:

It takes a long time to drive from Wichita to Austin! And, at a time when some are urging a return to the 55 mph speed limit, I saw little observation of the current 70 mph speed limit. Even when I drove for a while at 75 mph, people passed me like I was standing still.

Why is the term changing from “global warming” to “climate change”?

Ask readers to take action on your blog. Then, after taking action — maybe making a telephone call or writing an email — have readers write a comment about it so others can learn what happened.

I learned more about media bias and how to spot it.

One speaker said that the combined circulation of small newspapers is equal to the circulation of large newspapers.

Personally, I reconnected with some blogger friends that I first met at Samsphere in Chicago earlier this year, a friend I had met at Mises University last year, plus some Facebook “friends” who I had never met in person.

I also got a glimpse at the power of Twitter combined with a mobile device like a Blackberry. I may have to get one.

I had thought I would be able to produce an abbreviated Kansas Blog Roundup on Friday, but with all the activity, I didn’t have time.