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Archive for Monday, October 28, 2002

Education woes, redistricting make incumbent vulnerable

October 28, 2002

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These days, Rep. Ralph Tanner, R-Baldwin, has a giant bull's-eye on his back.

Of the 66 Republican legislators seeking re-election, he is, perhaps, the most vulnerable to defeat.

As chairman of the often-contentious House Education Committee, Tanner, 75, has locked horns with the state teachers association as well as the lobby representing the state's 307 boards of education. Both groups have endorsed Tanner's opponent, Tom Holland.

Also, after this year's reapportionment, almost half of the reconfigured 10th District now lies in southeast Douglas County, including the Lawrence neighborhoods south of 23rd Street between Kasold and Barker avenues.

"A lot of people are watching this race because 49 percent of the district is brand new to Ralph, and no one knows which way the Douglas County 'Birkenstock Republicans' are going to go on the whole education issue," said Martin Hawver, a political analyst and newsletter publisher who's covered the Kansas Legislature for 25 years.

Tanner, a former president of Baker University who voted for the school-finance package passed by this year's Legislature, insists he's all for education. His critics say he's not.

"He is the biggest obstacle to improving education in this state for our schoolchildren," said Joe Spease, a member of Kansas Families United for Public Education, the Johnson County-based group that's been distributing yard signs encouraging voters to back candidates  Republican or Democrat  willing to spend more on schools.

That assessment, Tanner argued, is unfair.

"The problem they and the other groups have with me is that when they say 'Jump," I don't jump and I don't ask 'How high?'" Tanner said.

Spease and others in the state's education lobby contend that schools desperately need more money, a claim backed by a recent state-funded study aimed at defining the costs of providing a "suitable education," as required by the Kansas constitution.

Tanner disagreed, calling the study "a piece of claptrap" because it avoided taking on the economic questions of how much the state can afford.

"There isn't a doubt it my mind that schools need more money," he said. "But that's not the question at hand  the question is how much of the state's gross product should be assigned to support education? This is a valid question. It's one that as a legislator I feel I am obligated to ask."

His willingness to ask, Tanner said, does not mean he's anti-education. It means the state's education lobby wants more than he thinks taxpayers have to give.

"It offends me to hear people say I'm not a supporter of education," he said. "I've spent a career  40-plus years Âpromoting education."

Opponents

Holland disagreed with Tanner's assessment.

"I'm a proponent of making sure that more money reaches our kids' classrooms and that we're paying our teachers competitive salaries," said Holland. "My opponent has been anything but a proponent."

Holland, 41, and his wife, Barbara, live near the Cedar Hill Gun Club between Lawrence and Baldwin. Together, they run a software consulting firm.

The couple's four children attend Lawrence public schools.

"People are ready for a change, they want somebody who'll get us out of this mess we're in," Holland said, referring to lawmakers' facing a projected $800 million shortfall next year.

Holland said he's willing to raise taxes. He's for adding a couple brackets to the high end of the state's income tax code. And he's all for cutting wasteful spending.

But he'll be slow to raise the state's sales tax, he said. And he's against letting school districts raise local property taxes more than the state property tax for schools.

"The way it's set up now, school finance is a state responsibility," Holland said. "Raising the LOB (local option budget), shifts that responsibility back on to the locals. It's buck-passing; the state should live up to its responsibilities."

Holland said he'll vote whatever tax package can draw enough votes to pass the Legislature.

"I'm guessing it'll have a little bit of everything in it," he said.

Tanner said he, too, will vote to raise taxes.

"It's inevitable," he said. "The next governor is not going to find $800 million in fat in the next budget. It's not there."

Tanner said he supports moving toward a school finance formula in which the state would be responsible for 80 percent of the true costs of providing "basic K through 12 curriculum."

Local school districts, he said, would be obligated to fund the remaining 20 percent and would have the option of "adding whatever icing they wanted to put on the cake."

What politics should be

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at Kansas University, will have an eye on the 10th District race.

"In my opinion, this race is what politics should be about," Loomis said. "You have a veteran incumbent who's been outspoken on the issues, and you have a Democratic challenger who's saying 'I disagree with your record; I'll take a different approach; let's have an election.' It's really kind of refreshing."

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