Opinion

Audio Astra: Experts on Kansas tax incentives, wildlife earn our ears with authority, details

September 3, 2021 3:33 am

In the latest episode of the “Flatlander” podcast series, Wes Sowards, the assistant director of the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks, provides context for programs in the wildlife division he helps direct. The Great Plains require public-private partnerships, he says, given that most of the land is privately owned. (Submitted)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

The cast of scientists, doctors, academics and other experts in my playlist this week is staggering. I hope you join me in rewarding the podcasters that sought them out by giving them a listen.

STAR Bonds Evaluation

The Rundown with Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit, Aug. 30, 2021

This is what expertise sounds like.

I was bracing for a dry podcast that rambled into an alphabet soup of unintelligible audit language when I read the title. Then, I looked at the mundane album art. I was braced for financial boredom. 

But you know what they say: Don’t judge a podcast by its album cover. Upon listening, I found a concise and elegantly researched episode.

The podcast unpacks financial reviews of state programs — in this case STAR bonds. These bonds, embraced and perhaps even invented by the Kansas Legislature, connect state and local governments in agreements that both will forgo tax revenue from specific projects in order to encourage development. What kinds of projects? The stated purpose is to spur ones that generate substantial income, mostly from out-of-state visitors.

But guess what? The state is not requiring reporting of out-of-state tourism data from the attractions financed by STAR bonds or even requiring self-reported data in some situations. So, the researchers studied where visitors come from.

And the conclusion? Only three of the 16 attractions that could be studied lived up to the goal that is set for these attractions: that 20% of visitors are out of state and 30% come from more than 100 miles away.

The researchers on the podcast draw nuanced conclusions, delicately explain their methodology and warn about drawing wider conclusions. But their conclusions are shocking enough. As their show page says, “We estimate it might take the state 43-118 years after bond repayment to break even on” the Hutchinson Underground Salt Mine, a STAR bonds project. 

Working Lands for Wildlife

Flatlander, Aug. 27, 2021

If the “Flatland” podcast series aims to inspire conservation coverage from journalists, this episode is a total goldmine. Story ideas and follow-up questions flow throughout.

Wes Sowards, the assistant director of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, provides context for so many programs in the wildlife division he helps direct.

The scope of the discussion is wide and revealing. He describes the Habitat First Program — with its $1.2 million of state funding — compared with $156 million in conservation funds from the federal government through the Farm Bill. He also explains that 98% of Kansas is privately owned, making almost all conservation efforts necessarily public-private partnerships.

“It’s so critical in the Great Plains, especially Kansas,” Sowards says. “Private land is really what we have here. It’s what we have to manage.”

During the last half of the program, Sowards and the Flatlander hosts discuss the administrative whiplash that happens, not just in the federal government, but even at state agencies when the White House changes hands.

“I have to say it’s kind of scary listening to this and thinking about these programs that are so widely impactful throughout the state and knowing how vulnerable they are to changes in leadership,” says host Laura Mendenhall. “… Wes, I imagine that is probably a stressful environment to work under, knowing the funding for those programs, the support for those programs could change at any change in leadership.”

“Yeah,” Sowards answers. “ ‘Stressful’s’ a good word for it.”

Sowards says the Trump administration did less to incentivize one of the public-private partnerships, the Conservation Reserve Program. Sowards believes that changes since President Joe Biden took office, such as increasing rates paid to farmers for the rent of their land for conservation, will aid conservation efforts.

“Hopefully the new rates will get landowners back interested in the program,” Sowards says. “Land rates will be high enough to incentivize that participation, and hopefully we get a more robust CRP program going forward.”

This could be big news for Kansas. Our state is only behind Texas in the number of acres dedicated to the CRP program.

Kansas School District Closed Due To COVID Isn’t Going To Remote Learning. Here’s Why.

Up To Date, Aug. 30, 2021

In education, teachers often say the highest form of mastery is being able to teach a concept to others.

If that’s the case, Kansas state Reps. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, and Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, need to cram for the next test.

They flunked their presentation explaining why school districts closed for COVID outbreaks are prohibited from using online learning. If it wasn’t so consequential, it would have been comical.

The absurdity escalated when both politicians tried to explain the difference between “remote schooling” and “virtual learning,” leaving host Steve Kraske as baffled as the rest of us.

Luckily, Suzanne Perez of the Kansas News Service and KMUW swoops in to provide a clear voice.

“I think your last segment really showed how confusing this new law is,” Perez said. “I think a lot of districts don’t know what is allowed and what’s not allowed.”

Meanwhile, Wellington schools are shut down until at least Sept. 7. Perez wonders whether other districts will openly defy the state regulation by offering remote learning, waiting until attendance reports are submitted to the state at the end of the year to fight about whether those days away from school “count.”

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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