Four of the major Republican candidates running for Kansas governor grappled Saturday night with many issues confronting the state, covering a broad swath of issues including taxes, spending, education, agriculture and government openness.
Capping the two-day Republican convention in Wichita, business owner Wink Hartman, former state Rep. Mark Hutton, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer appeared before a packed room at the Hyatt Regency for a 90-minute debate.
Gov. Jeff Colyer did not make the debate because he was ill. Republican Jim Barnett did not participate because he didn’t sign a pact agreeing to the GOP’s debate format.
The candidates fielded a variety of queries from a panel of questioners. They staked out positions against taxes, opposed federal regulations undercutting agriculture, called for controlling education spending, demanded accountability from schools and advocated for more government openness.
All four candidates opposed any increase in state property taxes, a reference to a bill that was introduced in the Legislature last week that would raise property taxes for elementary and secondary education.
Kobach took that a step further, saying the state should do something about spiking appraisals that lead to what he called “stealth” tax increases. He said the Legislature should pass a law limiting appraisal increases and eventually adopt a constitutional amendment capping them.
Hutton agreed with Kobach, saying the state has a serious problem with appraisals. He said appraisers should work independently from county commissions and answer directly to the state.
“There is pressure, I’m convinced, that’s being put on the county appraisers to keep (property values) up so the county commissioners don’t have to raise the mill levy,” Hutton said when asked to clarify his position after the debate.
Hutton said the current system is stacked against property owners, explaining that they have the burden to show why their property values are too high when protesting their appraisal. “I think that’s wrong.”
On education, the biggest issue facing the state, some of the candidates lashed out at the Kansas Supreme Court, which has ordered the state to adequately fund elementary and secondary schools.
Selzer said the state needs to demand accountability from schools, using metrics that measure output.
“We’re going to hold education accountable,” he said. “We need the full weight of the governor behind that.”
Hutton said the state Supreme Court, four of whose members were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, should butt out of the state’s spending decisions.
Hutton urged the adoption of a constitutional amendment that’s been proposed in the Legislature that would redefine a section of the Kansas Constitution that says the state must make “suitable”
provision to finance education. The change could potentially make it harder to fund schools.
Kobach, meanwhile, blasted schools for overspending on administrative salaries and buildings that look like the Taj Mahal. He said the growth in the number of administrators is outpacing the number of teachers in Kansas.
“That’s not what we should be doing,” Kobach said after the debate. “If we want to increase performance of students, we should be spending money in the classrooms.”