Sunday, November 23, 2014

Concealed carry, school funding, mental health top politics talk

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 1/6/2014

A record number of concealed carry applications were filed in 2013, the Kansas Attorney General’s office said Monday, making the state’s new gun laws all the more significant.

Lawmakers representing Franklin County in the Kansas Legislature expressed conflicting opinions on the new concealed carry law Saturday morning at the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s first legislative coffee of the 2014 session. State Reps. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, and state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, discussed the bill — which forces city and county municipalities and any building owned by the city and county to provide “adequate security” at a hefty price or allow concealed carry weapons on the premises — at Ottawa City Hall’s city commission chambers, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.

A record number of concealed carry applications were filed in 2013, the Kansas Attorney General’s office said Monday, making the state’s new gun laws all the more significant.

Lawmakers representing Franklin County in the Kansas Legislature expressed conflicting opinions on the new concealed carry law Saturday morning at the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s first legislative coffee of the 2014 session. State Reps. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, and state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, discussed the bill — which forces city and county municipalities and any building owned by the city and county to provide “adequate security” at a hefty price or allow concealed carry weapons on the premises — at Ottawa City Hall’s city commission chambers, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.

“When we had that bill in the Senate, not one person testified against it, not one,” Tyson said Saturday. “What I understood the bill to be was a choice — a choice for the communities to decide whether to provide security in a cost effective manner or to allow concealed carry [weapons].”

The City of Ottawa and its buildings recently opted for a four-year extension to not allow concealed carry weapons on the premises. The Franklin County Courthouse, 301 S. Main St., Ottawa, also will continue banning concealed carry weapons, but the Franklin County Office Annex, 1428 S. Main St., Ottawa, will allow them.

“Kansas has a rigorous testing mechanism in order to have a concealed carry license,” Tyson said. “That discussion will be another discussion we have in Topeka this year.”

Concealed carry weapons is only a small slice of the bigger pie though, one community member said during the legislative coffee. The other piece is mental health services, or the lack thereof.

‘WHERE DO WE GET THE MONEY?’

In a time when school and other public shootings are becoming more prevalent, more mental health aid is needed, Finch told the coffee crowd, but for that to happen, the state needs more money.

“I wish I could give you an optimistic message, but I don’t think there is one,” he said. “We can’t afford more mental health services with our budget unless we cut something else. So you’re going to have to cut K through 12 education or you’re going to have to cut corrections and public safety because that, with social services, is about 90 plus percent of your state budget, so I don’t know where we’re going to get the money to increase mental health services at this point.”

Tyson agreed, noting that although Kansas officials have said many times the state needs to bring mental health to the forefront, little has been done about it.

“My district covers the Osawatomie state hospital and we fought hard to keep the kitchen help because they outsourced the kitchen help,” Tyson said. “It doesn’t seem like much. It seems like a good place to save, but the RFP [request for proposal] that went out for bid was not comparable to what staff was actually doing.”

As a contractor and consultant for information technology, Tyson said, she understands that some jobs can and should be outsourced, while others, such as those at a mental health facility, should not.

“I’m afraid we’ll start outsourcing jobs critical to that state hospital,” she said. “When you have an ongoing job like a nurse at the mental health hospital, that’s not something that should be contracted out because they care about their patients and are working hard and we need to listen to them and work with them. Mental health is not an easy conversation to have, but one we need to have in Kansas.”

Much of the mental health system now in place is one of crisis management, Finch said, consisting of regulating and monitoring those with mental health needs instead of placing them in a mental health facility.

“It’s making sure those people in the worst shape get back into not-so-bad shape and then we let them go under the assumption they’re going to take their meds and do what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “This is the reality of crisis intervention for mental health services. There’s a better way to do it and we should invest in that, but folks make no mistake, it’s going to cost money and this notion of us doing less with more, it’s one of those where we have to have a little more to do a little more. We can’t manufacture mental health services out of nothing.”

‘EDUCATION CONCERNS’

Finding wasteful spending could be key to preventing more education cuts, Tyson said. Lawmakers also must make sure money allotted to education is being spent appropriately, she said.

“People keep talking about a three-legged stool — that there’s three portions of revenue for the state, and there’s not. There are two legs at the state level,” she said. “We collect sales and income tax. A bill is passed every two years of 20 mills and the state collects that and a very small portion is kept and the rest goes back to the schools.”

Throwing money at the problem won’t fix it, Finch said, adding that recognizing the problem, how to fix it and how much it costs is the place to start.

“I think we need to identify what it is in public education we’re concerned with,” Finch said. “Is it accountability? Do we want to make sure we’re getting something for the dollars we put in? And if so, how do we measure that? We went through this experiment called No Child Left Behind and we said we’ll measure through standardized test scores, and we all decided we really didn’t like that. So what is the measure we’re going to use? Is it graduation rates? Or the percentage of students attending college or completing college? Because on all those metrics, Kansas is in the top 10 in the nation.”

Jones agreed with Tyson and Finch, he said, though what the Legislature will do on the education issue remains up in the air.

“I have this picture of somebody with a wad of cash, holding it and turning to a kid and throwing the cash everywhere and you go ‘OK, what did that do?’” Jones said. “I think what Blaine said; we want to make sure we’re doing what’s right, and money’s going where it needs to go and not just throwing as much as we can at it to get good results.”

The amount being spent on education is another big issue, Finch said.

“We hit the recession in 2008 and cut back on spending and education funding, and it’s dropped and now is just north around $3,800 per pupil,” Finch said. “Again, a decision is going to decide whether or not that $3,800 is what we call ‘adequate funding’ for public education in the state of Kansas.”

In 2013, higher education took a 1.5-percent cut across the board, Finch said, a cut that might not have been the best decision.

“We now realize not all cuts are created equal, and there’s discussion about ‘Shouldn’t we target those cuts to the areas where they’re most necessary?’” Finch said. “That’s why you’ll likely see a supplemental bill on higher education funding that there are certain facilities, research programs or schools of business or education that maybe need to be funded at the full level in order to be effective.”

The complicated formula of how much funding each school receives needs to be opened and discussed, Tyson said.

“Another portion that increases the amount of funding is based on the size of community you’re from, and rural gets a little bit of a bump there,” she said. “There’s a divide in the Legislature, and I don’t like this. We’re one state. We need something that fits all of Kansas, not just urban versus rural. We’ve got a bit of a disconnect. We are one state and one of the largest economies is agriculture in rural Kansas and is critical to this state. We need to understand this is a handshaking between rural versus urban, and when we open that education equation, we need to support all schools in Kansas, not just one area or the other.”

Such a discussion — one that could bring change to varied school districts — comes with risks, Jones said.

“Whenever you’re working with a budget or a way you’ve always done things, whenever you mess with that, it gets a little scary,” Jones said. “It being my second year, I don’t know fully what to expect in the next day or five days or if it comes up during session. That’s when I expect, and hope I get a lot of people calling me and talking to me and saying this and that from my district and the state of Kansas.”

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