Archive for Election 2018

Colyer, Kobach use pens to fight over Kansas school spending, taxes

by Madeline Fox and Jim McLean, Kansas News Service

They dueled with pens and camera-ready events. The two men split over what could become a defining issue in their battle to win this year’s governor’s race, and over whether Kansas needs to spend more to fix its public schools.

Gov. Jeff Colyer went to a Topeka high school early Tuesday — a performance he planned to repeat later in the day in Wichita — to sign into law a plan to balloon the money sent to local districts by $500 million-plus over the next half-decade.

“Education is one of the most important things that we do in Kansas,” Colyer said. “Our future is right here, and we have an exciting future ahead of us.”

Across town about an hour later, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach signed his own document — a campaign pledge not to raise taxes. He called Colyer’s signing of the education funding bill a mistake, accusing the current governor of caving into judicial and political pressure for spending on schools Kobach contended was simply not needed.

“He should not have signed it,” Kobach told reporters at his press conference. “(Colyer) should not have encouraged the Legislature to pass such a huge spending hike.”

So on a weekday morning more than three months before a primary election, two of the leading Republican candidates for governor sought to draw as much attention as they could to their differing views on education funding and government more broadly.

Colyer’s day cast him as the man at the helm, guiding a troubled state through the stormy waters of school finance. Kobach tacked to the right and insisted that Kansas government is fundamentally broken, needing not so much a steady hand at the rudder as a dramatic change in course.

The split comes over some of the most critical issues of state government, schools and the taxes that pay for them.

Lawmakers passed an eleventh-hour school funding bill earlier this month in the face of a Kansas Supreme Court order. They were racing toward an April 30 deadline, when legal briefs are due spelling out what action the state had taken in response to the court’s ruling in October.

Colyer, who took over the governorship from Sam Brownback in late January, had urged passage of the bill. That aligned him with Republican moderates and Democrats and against the most conservative elements in his party.

It also led him to sign into law a measure with an $80 million shortfall that legislators will have barely a week to fix. On Tuesday at Seaman High School in Topeka, Colyer used that error to make his bill signing part celebration and part civics lesson.

Legislators, he told students and school board members positioned around him, are working on a “trailer bill” to fix the funding error. Then Colyer walked a lap around the gym high-fiving students.

Last Friday, Colyer passed on a chance to respond to Kobach’s attacks at a Republican governor’s candidate forum. On Tuesday, he said the people of Kansas have a “very clear choice” in the primary.

“As governor, what you do is you make solutions. You work with people,” Colyer said. “We’re actually getting things done, and (the bill signing) is an excellent example of actual accomplishment.”

He noted his “different style” from the more cable channel-ready Kobach.

“I don’t scream and shout,” Colyer said.

In his competing news conference, Kobach did not raise his voice. But he renewed his criticism of the school funding bill (“a disaster”). He condemned Colyer for signing legislation that the secretary of state insisted would for force lawmakers to raise taxes next year.

“It is inevitable that the Legislature next year will be sending a tax hike to the governor,” Kobach said. “We need a governor who is going to veto it, not a governor who has aided and abetted such a future tax increase.”

Colyer insists the school spending plan does not require a tax increase. Along with signing his no-tax-hike pledge, Kobach called on the Kansas House to pass a tax break bill already approved by the Senate.

Kobach, like other supporters, says the bill merely prevents the state from reaping a windfall for recent changes in the federal tax code. Lawmakers should instead, Kobach said, ensure that those tax breaks flow back to Kansas taxpayers.

“The starting presumption should be that the money belongs to the people.” Kobach said. “For the state government to intercept the federal tax relief and take it away from Kansans is wrong.”

The bill allows Kansas taxpayers to itemize deductions on state tax forms even if they’re not claiming them on their federal returns. It also accelerates the restoration of certain federal itemized deductions. Current state law doesn’t sync deductions for mortgage interest, property taxes and medical expenses with federal limits until 2020. The tax-break bill moves that up to 2018.

But the measure does more than “return” the federal tax windfall. It also dramatically increases standard deductions for all Kansas income tax filers. And it allows business owners to retroactively claim tax breaks they lost in 2012 when former Gov. Sam Brownback dramatically reduced income tax rates.

Paying for those changes in the tax code could cut state revenues by nearly $500 million, or roughly what Colyer and the Legislature are adding to school spending.

House leaders have said the state can’t afford both the tax breaks and the increase in school funding.

Steven Johnson, a Republican from Assaria and chair of the House Taxation Committee, said the school spending bill and a tax cut are at odds.

“There is not a way” to pay for the larger school funding plan, he said, “and return those dollars.”

Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox. Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.
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Colyer takes heat from Kobach for backing more Kansas school spending

by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service

Being the incumbent may give Jeff Colyer a leg up in the Republican race for governor, but it also makes him a target.

His chief rivals, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, used a forum sponsored by the Kansas Republican Party In Atchison to characterize Colyer as a poor manager and weak leader on conservative causes.

“We need a governor who is going to seize the conservative flag and march into battle with it,” Kobach said in the Friday night event.

Kobach continued to call himself a “full-throttled” conservative and criticized Colyer for supporting a school funding bill backed mainly by moderate Republicans and Democrats.

“That $500 million bill should not have been passed and should not be signed,” Kobach said, insisting it can’t be funded without a tax increase.

“That bill is a house of cards,” he said.

Colyer hailed the bill as a good compromise. He said it increased the state’s investment in education while holding schools more accountable for improving student performance.

“I am proudly going to sign a bill that puts more money into the classroom and actually makes sure that we have outcomes,” Colyer said.

If elected, Kobach said, he would assign every Kansas school a grade based on student performance. Students attending failing schools would receive state vouchers so they could transfer to the public or private school of their choice, he said.

All three candidates expressed support for a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Kansas Supreme Court from the funding debate.

Kobach said it’s time that lawmakers and the executive branch “stop getting rolled” by the Supreme Court.

The school funding debate has spanned the terms of 10 governors, Colyer said, and “it’s my goal to be the last governor under this litigation.”

But heading into the final week of the legislative session, the amendment appears a longshot to pass. Two-thirds of House and Senate members would have to vote to place it on the November ballot.

Colyer attempted to shore up his conservative credentials by referring several times to his stint as a White House fellow during the Reagan administration.

“I learned about good Republican leadership from Ronald Reagan,” he said in his opening statement.

He also addressed an abortion case pending before the Kansas Supreme Court that could decide whether the right to an abortion is protected by the state’s constitution.

“Does anybody in this room believe that the 1859 Kansas Constitution had a right to a ‘dismemberment abortion?’” Colyer asked, prompting a chorus of “no” from many in the audience.

“I will only select judges to the Kansas Supreme Court who will interpret the Kansas Constitution as written,” he said.

Colyer, a physician, said the privatization of Medicaid that he led as former Gov. Sam Brownback’s lieutenant governor has substantially reduced costs while producing better health outcomes.

Selzer said the rocky transition to managed care shouldn’t be touted as a success story.

“We implemented a new Medicaid program and we didn’t manage it,” Selzer said.

That KanCare program has drawn frequent complaints from both providers and Medicaid patients about increased red tape and reduced services.

Selzer, a certified public accountant, said he would use his business background to improve the efficiency of state government. He said years of mismanagement have resulted in a lack of innovation and investment across state government, from education to economic development and infrastructure.

“This state has been poorly managed,” he said. “We’re going to fix it all.”

Jim Barnett, a former state senator, was not included in the GOP-run event because he refused to sign party debate rules. That unwillingness to promise no attacks on the opposition also kept him out of a Wichita debate in February.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

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Kansas Democrats think Trump, Brownback can boost their 2018 chances

Candidates for governor found a Democratic state party convention newly enthused with electoral optimism after years of Republican dominance. (Photo by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service)

by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service

Kansas Democrats aren’t yet united behind a candidate for governor.

Still, they emerged from their annual convention over the weekend talking confidently about a fighting chance to break the recent Republican grip on key state and federal offices.

“You have to have a perfect storm to elect a Democrat in Kansas,” said Damien Gilbert, president of the Young Democrats of Kansas, a chapter nearly extinct a few years ago but now among the party’s most active.

“This,” he said, “is that perfect storm year.”

Conversations among party members gathered in Topeka for their state convention invariably turned to the opportunities Democrats have to exploit anger at President Donald Trump and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

“This is a big election year,” said former Kansas Gov. John Carlin. “I feel pretty good. … I see people involved who haven’t always been involved. I see young people more engaged.”

Along with that young energy, old timers are also re-engaging with a party that’s withered since 2010, when Brownback swept into office on a conservative wave. Now, Democrats sense voter dissatisfaction with the hard right policies that followed.

Take Adrian Polansky. He’s a former state secretary of agriculture and held posts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now he farms near Belleville.

He said the Topeka convention vibrated with an enthusiasm that reminded him of the 1970s, when Carlin was elected to the first of two terms as governor. In that era, Democrats either held or waged competitive races in three of the five congressional districts Kansas had at the time.

“That excitement,” Polansky said, “has returned.”

Ethan Corson, executive director of the state party since August, said that as he travels the state he sees a chance for Democrats to cash in on frustration with Trump, Brownback and Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer. He recalled a big crowd that showed up on a cold January day in Colby for a debate that featured only Democratic candidates for governor.

“Some of them were Republicans,” Corson said. “(They) told me that they were frankly sick of the Republican agenda and wanted to hear from our candidates.”

The number of candidates seeking the party’s nomination for governor is another sign of Democrats’ early optimism. Seven of them — including Wichita high school student Jack Bergeson — participated in a forum at the convention.

Some in the audience expected House Minority Leader Jim Ward and perhaps former legislator and state agriculture secretary Josh Svaty to go after state Sen. Laura Kelly, who secured the endorsement of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on the convention’s first day

Instead, the candidates focused on Brownback and Colyer — who became governor in February when Brownback left for a post in the Trump administration — for stubbornly sticking to tax cuts that forced deep cuts in spending on universities, highways and social programs.

“With the devastating tax cuts he (Brownback) imposed, we have had to sweep every nickel from every fund just to pay our bills,” Kelly said, adding it was “painful” to watch services gutted and infrastructure neglected from her vantage point as the top Democrat on the Senate’s budget writing committee.

Both Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach are intent on taking Kansas further to the right, Ward said.

Kobach, he said, promises “full-throttled conservatism.” Yet Ward finds Colyer’s politics just as extreme. He noted that the governor has called for a constitutional amendment to further limit abortions, expressed support for arming teachers and refused to reinstate an executive order protecting state workers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

“Do we go backwards,” he said, “or do we build a better Kansas?”

Svaty’s performance stirred members of the partisan crowd, particularly his call-to-arms closing.

“I don’t care who wins the Republican primary,” he shouted. “I don’t care if Greg Orman” — the successful businessman and failed U.S. Senate candidate vying for governor as an independent — “runs or doesn’t run. We can demonstrate that when Democrats are energized…we can win no matter who else is running.”

Some political analysts contend that if Orman stays in the race as an independent he could undercut a Democrat’s chances by siphoning off votes from moderates.

Democrats also talked confidently about challenging for other statewide offices and, perhaps, for three of the state’s congressional seats.

State Sen. Marci Francisco and former Google and Uber executive Brian McClendon are competing for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state.

A long list of Democrats are vying for the right to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder in the 3rd Congressional District, which covers the KC metro area.

Wichita civil rights attorney James Thompson is running against 4th District Republican Rep. Ron Estes for a second time. Thompson narrowly lost a special election for the seat in April 2017 that drew national attention as a referendum on Trump.

But the state’s 2nd Congressional District – where Republican incumbent Lynn Jenkins isn’t running for re-election – could be Democrats’ best chance of flipping a congressional seat.

Former Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, is well-financed and running against a field of Republicans with lower profiles in the eastern Kansas district. He carried that region in his unsuccessful 2014 bid to unseat Brownback.

“We haven’t won a congressional race or a statewide race in 10 years,” he said in a speech to the 2nd District caucus at the convention. “But I believe that our time is now.”

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

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