Education, social services and how the state should pay for them dominated a wide-ranging discussion among candidates for governor Saturday at the Journal-World.
Republicans Dan Bloom, Dave Kerr, Bob Knight and Tim Shallenburger took questions from newspaper editors and reporters from across Kansas attending the Associated Press Managing Editors annual convention. The forum was the first gathering of all candidates for the state's top office.
Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, who does not face a primary opponent, refused to join the Republicans and had a separate forum with the same question-and-answer format.
The winner of the Aug. 6 Republican primary is expected to face Sebelius in the Nov. 5 general election.
Most questions focused on the budget, whether the Legislature should have increased taxes this year and whether the new governor and legislators will have to consider more tax increases next year.
Debating tax increases
Shallenburger, the state treasurer, separated himself from the pack by declaring that he signed a pledge not to raise taxes if elected governor. He said he opposed recent tax increases passed by the Legislature because they would put a burden on many Kansans who already were suffering from the slumping economy.
"We will not tax our way to prosperity," Shallenburger said.
The other Republican candidates said they would work hard to hold the lid on taxes but would not sign a pledge of opposition to new taxes because it would tie their hands.
Kerr, a state senator from Hutchinson, said signing such a pledge would be like electing a trained monkey to do the job. He said state budgets need to be more closely analyzed for potential savings, but solutions to Kansas' fiscal problems "won't fit on a bumper sticker."
Kerr and Knight, the mayor of Wichita, defended this session's tax increases, saying they prevented damaging cuts in aid to public schools, spending on state universities and social services.
Paying for services
"It became clear that the people of Kansas wanted us to preserve core services upon which they depend so much," Kerr said.
Knight said the decision to raise taxes had to be assessed with "a longer view."
"I am not interested in not only eating the corn crop but the seed corn as well," he said.
Knight defended his record of adhering to budgets without tax increases during his tenure as mayor of Wichita, but said he would not sign an anti-tax pledge because such a position could lead to cuts in education and social services, which he said he would vehemently oppose.
"If people want services, it's going to cost money. If I want them and I expect them, then I have to be adult enough to be willing to pay for them," he said.
Bloom, a former Eudora school superintendent, said he didn't think more taxes were needed, but said signing a pledge against tax increases was bad public policy.
As for raising taxes, he said, "It chokes business. It chokes economic development."
Sebelius won't comment
Sebelius refused to comment on the nearly $300 million tax increase approved by lawmakers. As far as the need for future tax increases, Sebelius would only say she planned a top-to-bottom review of all of state government to find savings and efficiencies.
"Until you know what you are doing, you cannot know how much money it is going to take," she said.
After the forum, Shallenburger gave himself some wiggle room on the issue of tax increases.
Asked if he would veto a tax increase given to him by the Legislature, he said, "I don't know about that. I never pledged that," but added that he would be hard-pressed to sign a tax bill. "They are more wriggly (on tax increases) than I am," he said referring to his opponents.
A closer look
Editors attending the forum said they enjoyed the discussion but that the candidates didn't stray from standard answers.
John Lechliter, executive editor of the Emporia Gazette, was one of those who asked questions of the candidates. "I thought it was a good early look at the candidates, especially on the Republican side. We got to see some of the differences that separate them."
Emerson Lynn, associate editor of the Iola Register, said there were no surprises. "I thought they were all predictable," he said.
Greg Halling, managing editor of the Hutchinson News, said Kerr did the best job of articulating the challenges that face the state and what he intends to do about them, while Shallenburger "struck that populist chord."
The candidates generally agreed that education and economic development would be their top priorities if they were elected, and that they would protect services for needy Kansans.
Abortion, death penalty
There was disagreement over abortion.
Shallenburger, Knight and Kerr said they opposed abortion, although the state's largest anti-abortion group has said it would endorse Shallenburger. Bloom and Sebelius support abortion rights.
Knight, who as mayor of Wichita has seen mammoth anti-abortion protests, said continued fighting over abortion "leaves me feeling empty and cold."
On public schools, Sebelius complained that during the 1990s Kansas experienced some of its best economic times but spending on schools did not keep up, and she pointed to a recent report that says the state needs to increase school funding by $390 million to provide a suitable education.
But Bloom denounced the study, saying it would be used as a scare tactic to justify a tax increase for schools. He said one way to save money to divert to public schools would be to close some of Kansas' 19 junior colleges, six of which are grouped closely together in southeast Kansas.
All four Republicans said some heinous crimes rate capital punishment, though Bloom said he was worried about the cost of appeals in death penalty cases.
Sebelius voted against the current Kansas capital punishment law in 1994. But she said she would uphold the law if elected.
Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, is finishing his second term and is barred from running for a third term.