Would-Be Kansas Governors Spar Over Taxes and School Spending

Sep 19, 2014

Kansas Governor’s debate from left to right: Moderator Micheal Mahoney, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, Libertarian candidate Keen Umbehr
Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

The three candidates for governor in Kansas diverge on taxes, health care and school funding, but they   came together Friday for a debate sponsored by the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce. 

The contest is largely between incumbent Republican Governor Sam Brownback and his Democratic challenger, Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis. Friday’s gubernatorial debate in Overland Park also included the Libertarian candidate, Keen Umbehr, who echoed some of Gov. Brownback’s views and pledged to take his income tax cuts to a new level.

Brownback and the Republican-controlled Kansas legislature eliminated income taxes on almost 200,000 businesses and self-employed individuals and cut income tax rates for everyone else. Those cuts helped trigger a $300 million tax shortfall last year. Umbehr said the cuts aren’t fair.

“That’s why we don’t have enough money,” said Umbehr at Friday’s debate. “Our tax policy right now allows 191,000 business owners to pay zero, while 1.4 million wage earners pay it all.”

Umbehr wants to zero out income tax for all Kansans but replace the revenue with a uniform sales tax. 

Brownback had also proposed to cover some of the revenue lost from income tax cuts with a sales tax increase, but the legislature didn’t go a long with that part of the plan. 

Still, Brownback said his tax policies are driving the state’s economy to new heights.

“We have made substantial improvement to the budget of this state, and we are growing, and we are creating jobs in this state, 58,000 new private sector jobs in the last four years,” said Brownback at the debate.

Brownback pointed to the state's low, 4.9% unemployment rate as further proof. He says the policies contribute to Johnson County’s economic vitality.

“We’re building office space, so that people can move into Johnson County and take advantage of the situation that’s here,” said Brownback.

His challenger though, Democratic state Rep. Paul Davis, notes that Kansas is growing slower than surrounding states.  And Davis says current and looming budget shortfalls imperil Johnson County, which he says is growing more in spite of policies coming from Topeka than because of them. 

“You know, people in Topeka would like to take credit for what you’ve done here in Johnson County, but this is your model that you built,” said Davis. “It’s a successful model, and what we need to do is help you grow that model. And that means funding our public schools, and funding our infrastructure program that’s going to help you grow jobs here in Johnson County."

Davis blamed Brownback for cutting $1 billion from transportation funding.  He said cuts in classroom spending have left Johnson County’s prized school system at risk.

“(I) talked to a school teacher the other day in Shawnee Mission, who told me she’s got over 30 kids in her class and she can’t even get a paraprofessional,” said Davis.

Davis said raising per-pupil spending would re-ignite an economic engine that Kansas has relied on for decades.

Brownback countered that teachers in Johnson County schools would have more to spend if local districts had more authority to tax and spend as they please. That’s why he said he supported local option budgets. Brownback said that Davis’ calls for higher spending would mean a net loss to Johnson County.

“What he’s talking about, he’s talking money for schools, is your money, but not your schools, and putting it in other places,” said Brownback.

The Libertarian candidate for Governor, Keen Umbehr also warned that school funding increases would drain money from the state’s wealthiest county. Davis said he supports letting districts tax and spend extra if they can, and that he voted for a school funding bill this year that did just that.

“But I voted against the final bill,” said Davis. “Because Governor Brownback and the legislature decided to take a cheap shot at the 35,000 school teachers that we have in this state.”

That bill tied increased funding to a provision making it easier to fire Kansas public school teachers by taking away rights to independent termination hearings.